JOHNSON CITY — The Tennessee women’s basketball team found itself in dangerous territory in its season opener Tuesday night at ETSU.
The Lady Vols let a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter slip into a one-possession game in the final minute, electrifying the atmosphere inside Freedom Hall. As the underdog, ETSU had all the momentum.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s historically bad season seemed to loom as heavily as the potential for an upset.
Sophomore Zaay Green evidently wasn’t fazed at the free-throw line with less than 30 seconds left.
“There really wasn’t no pressure,” said Green, who scored a team-high 17 points. “I just shot two free throws. I knew I was going to make them.”
Despite shooting 56.3% from the foul line, the Lady Vols made free throws when it counted to hang on for a 72-68 victory. They avoided a demoralizing start coming off their 19-13 season — the first time in the modern era they didn’t reach 20 wins.
Tennessee (1-0) made 4 of 6 free throws in the final 30 seconds to pull the game out of reach for the Buccaneers (0-1).
“One of the things I told the players in the locker room is you never take a win for granted,” said Tennessee coach Kellie Harper, who was making her debut at the helm of the Lady Vols. “I’m proud of our players for finding a way to hang onto that one. It’s a great opportunity for us to learn without having to take a loss.”
Things took a turn for the worst for Tennessee after a Tamari Key layup extended the Lady Vols’ lead to 10 points with 3:28 left. It was at that point ETSU went on an 8-0 run that cut the deficit to 68-66 in the final 35 seconds.
Green sank a pair of free throws before Erica Haynes-Overton matched it on ETSU’s next possession to put the Buccaneers back within two points with 19 seconds left.
“It got really loud. It was actually hard communicate at times,” Harper said of those final minutes. “What a fun environment for both teams to play in. You don’t get that every night.”
The Lady Vols didn’t allow the vibe to rattle them. Rennia Davis and Rae Burrell sank one free throw apiece in the final 10 seconds to help stave off an ETSU comeback.
Haynes-Overton accounted for more than half of ETSU’s points with 41 — the third most in program history.
A win is a win, but the Lady Vols have plenty of work to do, as their shooting woes from the field persisted against the Buccaneers. Tennessee shot 36.6 percent while going 3-for-18 from behind the arc. Those stats were similar to their exhibition victory over Carson-Newman in which they shot 35.4 percent and were 2-for-15 in 3’s.
Harper said her team struggled shooting in rhythm, especially in the fourth quarter.
“Then we just missed some shots,” Harper said. “I think we had a few good looks, missed some shots — maybe got a little frustrated at times. When we were shooting in rhythm, we were just a little bit better. … Our staff will go back and really pick that one apart.”
Fouls also plagued Tennessee from start to finish but, fortunately for the Lady Vols, ETSU couldn’t capitalize. The Buccaneers were 17-for-33 (51.5%) from the foul line and shot 34.8 from the field.
There were certainly bright spots for Tennessee. The Lady Vols boast their tallest roster in program history, with players standing — on average — at 6-foot-2. They used that to their advantage by outrebounding the Buccaneers 62-41 and scoring 38 points in the paint.
“We feel like our strength will be getting the ball to the paint, using our athleticism and our length,” Harper said. “Obviously, the board play was a big deal, but it’s part of who we are.”
The Lady Vols will return to action Thursday when they host Central Arkansas at 7 p.m.