KNOXVILLE -- A Grinch wearing navy blue did its best to steal the Tennessee basketball team's Christmas on Friday night, but Trae Golden played the role of hero for the Volunteers.
The sophomore point guard scored nine of his 11 points in the final five minutes to help UT erase an eight-point deficit and earn a 66-63 win against visiting East Tennessee State in front of 16,044 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"Coach [Cuonzo] Martin pulled me aside and told me to step it up," Golden said. "Like I always say, one thing that really matters to me is Coach Martin and our team's confidence in me. I just tried on the defensive end to do what I could and tried to make plays for my teammates."
The Vols (5-6) trailed by 11 in the first half and didn't take their first lead until the 14:40 mark of the second half on the third of Skylar McBee's four 3-pointers. The Bucs (5-6), however, went on a 7-0 spurt after McBee's fourth trey to take a 59-51 lead with 5:36 remaining.
ETSU's next basket came more than four minutes later as Golden went to work.
He made an awkward score in the lane and converted a steal into a three-point play a few moments later, then had a drive and feed to Kenny Hall for an emphatic dunk. On ETSU's next possession, Hall's steal and pass led to Golden's one-handed slam in transition at the other end.
"Him knocking down free throws, him getting some steals and stuff like that, I think that was huge for his confidence," said UT wing Cameron Tatum, who scored 13 points with three 3s. "We've got all the confidence in the world in Trae."
Golden actually might have lost a little bit of his confidence after failing to score in double figures in UT's last three games. He made just six of his 25 shots during that stretch but bounced back Friday to make four of nine shots. He added six assists and four rebounds.
"He stepped up big, and I think that'll be good for him," Martin said. "I think he was pressing somewhat. The shot wasn't falling, and he finally stepped up and made some big free throws, made some big plays, and I think that was great for him to go home with a level of confidence.
"Not to say he lost it, but when you're shooting at a high level and your shots aren't falling, you start second-guessing and doubting yourself."
ETSU's Jarvis Jones missed a 3-pointer with UT leading 62-61. Golden and Jordan McRae each made a pair of free throws to ice the game in the final 20 seconds. The Vols defended Adam Sollazzo's last-second tying attempt well as the buzzer sounded.
"It's a long season and there's ups and downs in every season," Golden said. "You're going to go through your struggles. Some struggles are deeper than others, but you've just got to stay the course. It'll all come back around.
"As a player, for me personally, I never lose my confidence because if I'm not going to believe in myself, who is? If I'm out there not believing in myself, nobody else is. I've just got to stay the course. The team feeds off me."
Hall had 11 points and eight rebounds, and McBee scored 12 points as UT made eight 3s and shot 52 percent against ETSU's 2-3 zone defense.
Sollazzo had 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists and Tommy Hubbard had 18 points and nine rebounds for ETSU. The Bucs shot just 41 percent but had 17 offensive rebounds and won the battle on the glass (34-27).
The Vols won't return to practice until Monday night.
"It was a good game for our guys," Martin said. "A headache for me, but a good game for our guys to find a way, once again, to win a game."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...