ETSU trailed No. 9 Tennessee by just eight points with four minutes to go in the third quarter before No. 9 Tennessee pulled away for an 80-61 win at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"Playing the Lady Vols is an opportunity that every little girl who grew up in this region dreams of," Ezell said. "It's my job to provide that and their job to play with the effort and energy. They did such a great job. If we just hit a few more free throws (the Bucs were 5-of-20) and play better transition defense.
"I'm not into moral victories, but I'm thrilled with our effort. I'm the biggest cheerleader our team has. Tonight, they really got me going."
Meme Jackson led the Lady Vols (9-1) with 23 points, 21 of them coming from 3-point range. Her seven 3-point goals were just one off the school record. Ezell expressed concern about Jackson earlier in the week for good reason.
Tennessee also had double-digit efforts from Cheridene Green with 12 points, Mimi Collins, 11, and Rennia Davis with 11 to accompany seven rebounds.
"Meme Jackson shot the ball extremely well," Ezell said. "She is playing with a lot of confidence. As a coach, you pull for an in-state player and I'm happy for her, but I would have been happier if she had set on the bench tonight. They have talent, they have length and they have kids who can shoot it."
Micah Scheetz, who played her high school ball at Knox Webb, paced the Bucs (2-13) with a career-high 15 points. Carley Lytton and Erica Haynes-Overton each finished with 11 points, while Lexus Spears added eight points on 4-of-6 shooting.
"It was really fun to be out there. Like coach said, it's every girl's dream around here to play against the Lady Vols," Scheetz said. "I'm so proud how we competed. We played really well, probably the best we've played in several games — and I'm proud of that."
ETSU trailed 38-28 at the half and were down 48-40 with less than five minutes to go in the third quarter. As the Bucs went through a cold stretch of 10 straight missed shots, Tennessee scored 10 unanswered points and eventually led 62-44 heading into the final quarter.
Tennessee, which bounced back from a loss to No. 8 Stanford three days earlier, shared the basketball to the tune of 20 assists, nine of them coming from Evina Westbrook.
"We talked a lot about spreading the floor and taking great shots," Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said. "We talked about taking the pull-up jumper and taking the extra pass. Those group is really good at doing what you ask them to do and I thought tonight they did that."
ETSU outscored the Lady Vols 25-23 off the bench and the Bucs had 10 steals and forced 21 turnovers. While the non-conference record isn't what they desire, Lytton feels like playing teams such as Michigan State, Rutgers, South Carolina and Tennessee is getting them ready for the Southern Conference schedule.
"This is preparing us for conference," Lytton said. "We're taking these good teams and seeing how we play and our growth within. All these tough games will make us better."