KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — The first game of Tennessee's Rick Barnes era underscored how tough a task the veteran coach faces in his debut season with the Volunteers.
Kevin Punter scored a career-high 31 points and put Tennessee ahead for good in the final two minutes Friday as the Volunteers outlasted UNC Asheville 82-78 after squandering a 10-point, second-half lead.
"It's a big lesson learned," Punter said. "We've got to be better. We've got to hold our ground more, and we've got to be more solid defensively."
Punter sank two free throws with 1:48 left to break a 72-all tie and put Tennessee ahead for good. Robert Hubbs then blocked a Will Weeks shot, triggering a fastbreak that led to Punter's layup on the other end.
Hubbs lay on the floor for a few minutes after making the block and eventually was helped off the court. Barnes said afterward Hubbs was merely dealing with a cramp.
Tennessee's victory wasn't secure until Punter scored the game's final points on a pair of free throws with 7.4 seconds left.
"I felt the last couple of minutes was the first time we really got competitive on the defensive end," Barnes said. "We're just too tentative on the defensive end. When the game was on the line and it could have gone either way, we made some plays."
Barnes, the third Tennessee coach in as many seasons, was fired by Texas in March despite earning 16 NCAA Tournament bids in 17 seasons with the Longhorns.
His new team's flaws were apparent Friday.
UNC Asheville outrebounded Tennessee 36-33 and outscored the Vols 17-9 in second-chance points without having a single starter taller than the 6-foot-6 Weeks, who scored 25 points.
Tennessee got a combined two rebounds from three starters (Hubbs, Punter and Devon Baulkman.) Hubbs and Punter didn't get a single rebound.
"It's got to be done by committee," Barnes said. "You can't have two starters with no rebouinds."
Hubbs scored 18 points and Armani Moore had 12 points for Tennessee. Moore also had eight rebounds and six assists.
Kevin Vannatta had 17 points and Sam Hughes added 13 for UNC Asheville to help the Bulldogs claw back after trailing 55-45 with 12 ½ minutes left.
"I'm really proud of our effort to come back from a 10-point deficit in the second half," UNC Asheville coach Nick McDevitt said. "Immature teams or young teams kind of go away."
Barnes began Tennessee's new era by reaching back to the program's past. The Vols ran onto the court through a giant metal "T," reviving a pregame tradition that former Tennessee coach Ray Mears started in the 1960s and that continued into Buzz Peterson's tenure in the early 2000s.
The performances of Weeks and Tennessee forward Jabari McGhee gave both teams cause for optimism.
Weeks played only two games in 2013-14 and 11 games last season due to a knee injury. But he bounced back Friday by sparking UNC Asheville's comeback. Weeks says he has dropped about 25 pounds since last season.
McGhee had nine points and six rebounds off the bench in his first game since returning from a foot injury that limited him to eight games last season.
UNC Asheville: This marked the 10th time UNC Asheville has faced Tennessee, with all the meetings coming since 1997-98. UNC Asheville is 0-10 against Tennessee, but six of the games had single-digit margins.
Tennessee: Ray Kasongo didn't play due to what athletic department spokesman Tom Satkowiak described as an amateurism issue that preceded the junior-college transfer's enrollment. Satkowiak said the NCAA ruled that Kasongo must sit out a game and pay $300 in restitution.
UNC Asheville visits Western Carolina on Sunday.
Tennessee is at Georgia Tech on Monday.