Vol variety act: Brilliant, sluggish, big winners

Marvin Westwestwords

Tennessee had a sizzling 13-0 start and a 50-point half. It took a little nap, allowed a shower of threes, regained composure and romped past LSU, 88-68.

The Vols, at times, played even better than their 17-5 record but the Tigers broke loose for an unlikely 13-0 run of their own. The sellout crowd (21,678) at Food City Center dropped from delighted to concerned to this-can’t-be-happening.

In three minutes, LSU reduced a 23-point deficit to eight. But that was that. Santiago Vescovi got his only goal of the game and ended the streak. Tennessee closed with another rush.

LSU coach Matt McMahon was proud of the fight in the comeback but faced the truth.

“We just didn’t have enough left in the tank to get any closer than eight.”

McMahon praised the Volunteers.

“Tennessee is obviously top-five in the country for a reason. It was terrific in the first half and we just had no answer on either end of the floor.

“Look at Tennessee’s execution offensively, 23 assists. It shot the ball incredibly well from three in the first half (nine of 14) and the pressure really bothered us.

“It’s important to note that they have really good players around Dalton Knecht. They’ve got some guys who are more experienced than NBA starting fives.”

Indeed, veteran Vols were good. Knecht had 27 points, seven rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals. Zakai Zeigler continued to perform as if he thinks he is the best point guard in the country – 17 points (six of nine shooting), nine assists, five steals and floor leadership at both ends.

Jordan Gainey was again a surprise. He hit six of nine and scored 18. He dug in on defense. Rick Barnes noticed. Gainey played more minutes than Vescovi.

There was another surprise. LSU defeated Tennessee on the backboards, 40 rebounds to 26. This just wasn’t supposed to happen. The Vols are third in the SEC in rebounding. The Tigers are 10th. Trae Hannibal, a 6-2 guard, got 11.

How come, Coach Barnes?

“I don’t know.”

He said he did know the Vols had their hands on some rebounds that they didn’t get.

“I thought we were trying to rebound the ball with one hand and you can’t do that. I think you got to give them (LSU) credit. They did a great job (18-5 on offensive rebounds).

“We got to grab it. Got to secure the ball with two hands and we’re not doing enough of that right now.”

There were many good things for Barnes to like.

“You would love to bottle the first half. I mean, we were terrific. We really did do a lot of really good things. Obviously when the ball is going in like that, it all looks good, but I thought we were good in the second half.”

The Vols shot 58 percent in the first half. They hit nine of 14 three-point shots. Long-range marksmanship was not so accurate after intermission (two of 10).

How about that Gainey guy?

Barnes said he was sitting beside Jordan’s dad, associate head coach Justin Gainey, and talking about Jordan’s rhythm.

“Then I said, man, he’s improved so much on the defensive end. He was really working so hard there … everybody thinks he can just shoot it … he’s not afraid to go in and you can try to create something off the bounce … but defensively is where he’s improved more than anything…I mean, he has really taken it personal, becoming an all-around player.”

Guard Jahmai Mashack #15 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the win over LSU.

Complete game for Knecht?

Barnes said he was looking at the stat sheet and saw that Dalton had seven rebounds.

“And I said to him ‘You could have had 11.’”

Barnes said Knecht’s rebounding was key. The coach told him and Ziggy that they are more than just guys who can shoot the ball.

“I thought Dalton’s all-around game was really good.”

Barnes thought Zeigler was terrific. Coach McMahon said the same thing.

“He is a terrific point guard. We all know the importance and value of elite point-guard play. You saw how he played Saturday in Lexington. Really carried that over tonight. We were late on some closeouts to him and he hit some big threes.

“He does a great job of organizing their team and getting the ball where it needs to go. And then when he is shooting it well from three, it makes him a really difficult cover because of his speed and quickness off the bounce.”

Barnes didn’t say it but I do believe he was thinking what I was thinking, “Ziggy, Ziggy, Ziggy.”

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


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