Tennessee went from very bad to almost good enough

Marvin Westwestwords

World news: Hear ye, hear ye, Nick Saban has retired. All of Alabama is shocked and football may never be the same.

Big news in our world: Fiercely determined Mississippi State upset No. 5 Tennessee in Southeastern Conference basketball. It happened in downtown Starkville, 82 miles from Tuscaloosa. Some of us noticed.

Life is tough on the road. It is tougher when the team does not play well. The first half was some degree of awful. The Vols were manhandled, shot poorly, had 10 turnovers, scored only 22 points and trailed by 13 at intermission. They didn’t or couldn’t do much inside at either end of the floor.

Was it really bad, you ask? Would you believe more turnovers than field goals? It would have been worse without Zekai Zeigler’s good start. Dalton Knecht was virtually irrelevant – one for five in the first half.

The Volunteers suffered several bruises but eventually displayed the courage of champions. Instead of waving the white flag and heading for home, they fought back. Rick Barnes started it. He switched to a trapping defense. The Bulldogs couldn’t handle the pressure. Knecht and Zeigler almost shot ’em out of their gym. Knecht scored 26 of his 28 in the second half.

Vol guard Dalton Knecht #3 scored 28 points, 26 of them in the second half.

The Vol defense was never up to par but the comeback was astounding. Tennessee cashed in turnovers. In a matter of seconds, it hit three threes in a row. It got even at 62. It was even as late as 72.

Alas, it never got the lead. Big Vols Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka fouled out. The home team hit free throws. Big Bulldog Tolu Smith got a decisive goal down low. The home team won, 77-72.

Smith, recovering or recovered from a foot injury, was the winning edge. Tennessee simply couldn’t stop him. He scored 23. He hit nine of 13 free throws. Freshman Josh Hubbard scored 25.

Ziggy scored 26, most ever. Some other famous names didn’t do as much. Santiago Vescovi contributed two points. Josiah-Jordan James scored three.

“What Tolo did, he really controlled the whole game – set the tone for the whole game,” Barnes said. “We know he is an outstanding offensive player. But he just took it where he wanted to go. Our guys just can’t allow him to do that. Fouls, he put fouls on us.”

The Vols now have an 11-4 record. The Bulldogs are 12-3. Tennessee is on the road again Saturday, at Georgia.

Barnes was careful to give State credit for what it did.

“I do not in any way want to take anything away from Mississippi State. Coach (Chris Jaus) had his guys ready to play. And early in the first half, we just had some shots, good looks at it, that didn’t go in.

“Second half, we really fought hard to get back in. We all appreciated that effort.”

Barnes paused. He thought of the Tennessee turnover at the end. There were two. He thought of an offensive rebound. The coach knew the finish could have been closer, maybe even a win.

“We didn’t make enough winning plays at the end and, they deserve all the credit for this win.”

Barnes said “Obviously Zakari and Dalton got it going. Zakai continues to just do an incredible job. But overall, we got to have more team consistency.

“Tolu Smith had his way with our post guys. He got his position where he wanted it. He just did what he wanted to do.”

Barnes seemed reluctant to brag even a little bit about the pressure defense that made a difference.

“Well, we pretty much had to. We got ’em back on their heels a little bit and it was good for us. But then we had a couple fouls that you cannot have to let ’em go down and make some free throws.”

Barnes said the pressing trap indeed got the Vols back into the game.

“We’re proud of the fight. The way they came back shows what we’re capable of, but we had dug ourselves a hole. Yes, they had a lot to do with it.”

Coach was asked about how hard it is to win on the road with a combined five points from JJJ and Santi.

“It’s hard. I mean, it’s really hard. I mean, it’s really hard. We expect so much out of those guys. Defensively, they do a really good job. They’ve been in a lot of big games and we believe in them with our whole heart.

“But it’s consistency … we got to know what we’re going to get, not just from those two guys, but from everybody on our team.”

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *