Wednesday, April 23, 2014 · 3:41 a.m.
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Tennessee junior forward Jarnell Stokes. (Photo: Billy Weeks)

KNOXVILLE – Facing the possibility of its first 0-2 start since the 1964-65 season, Tennessee finally found a rhythm on both ends of the court in the second half against a pesky USC Upstate squad.

The Vols used a 12-2 run that spanned the late first half and the early second to help erase a sloppy start and then surged ahead late to pick up their first win of the young season in a 74-65 decision.

It was tougher than many expected.

The Spartans, an Atlantic Sun squad that has already knocked off Virginia Tech this year, came out firing. They connected on 62 percent of their first-half field goals on the way to a 42-35 lead at the break.

"Tough, tough game,” said UT coach Cuonzo Martin. “I really applaud Upstate. They competed. I must be a fool as a coach to play at Xavier first game and then first home game against Upstate. Talented team, very talented. I watched those guys on film and thought, "What am I thinking?"

Tennessee battled back after trailing for much of the first half and early in the second frame. After closing the margin to one point multiple times, the Vols finally took their first lead (61-59) since the opening moments at the 8:38 mark of the second half on a 3-pointer from point guard Antonio Barton, who made his first career start as a Vol.

Barton, a transfer from Memphis, connected on several crucial shots down the stretch to help Tennessee survive in front of just over 15,000 fans who attended the home opener at Thompson-Boling Arena.

“I’m very confident in my shot,” said Barton, who finished with 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting. “Coach told me the whole game to shoot the ball. I felt as if I had good looks and I took them.”

His teammates certainly are having no second thoughts about feeding the newcomer the ball in crucial situations.

Antonio Barton (Photo: Tennessee Athletic Communications)

"[Barton’s] a shot maker,” said senior forward Jeronne Maymon. “Regardless of newcomer or old-timer if you're a shot maker, you're a shot maker by the way you are. He shoots those balls and we expect them to go in."

It always helps a shooter’s confidence when his teammates are winning on the glass. Led by the frontcourt pair of Maymon and junior Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee did just that, especially in the second half.

The bruising duo of Stokes (18) and Maymon (11) combined for 29 rebounds to help UT win the battle on the glass 40-31.

"Those guys {Stokes and Maymon) rebound and that is what they do,” said Martin. “We have to get our guards doing a better job at getting those long rebounds. They are battling and putting bodies on them. [USC Upstate] had big bodies as well. Our guards have to do a better job at rebounding. Sometimes they watch too much because of the way Jeronne and Jarnell rebound the basketball."

Tennessee also cleaned up its free throw shooting and took better care of the ball after having lapses in both areas in its season-opening loss at Xavier. The Vols had their lowest amount of turnovers (5) since 1992.

And after shooting just 36.8 percent from the charity stripe at Xavier, they connected on 80.6 percent of their free throws Saturday night.

“We've been working on it because we shot poorly at Xavier from the line, but we got back in the gym and refocused,” said Maymon. “They fell for us tonight."

The Vols return to Thompson-Boling Arena to play The Citadel on Monday night at 7 p.m. ET.

Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga

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