Vols 1-0 on SEC basketball road

Marvin Westwestwords

Knockdowns, step-ons, bumps and bruises – such is basketball life on the road in the Southeastern Conference.

Most of that is predictable. The really hard part is winning.

So said Rick Barnes to his Volunteers after a very-hard-fought 63-59 victory over Ole Miss in Oxford.

Long before tipoff, the coach told the players that’s how it would be. He told them at halftime “See what I mean?”

Tennessee lost the first half by six. It twice trailed by 10. Tennessee won the second half by 10. Several adjustments, great defense, vigorous rebounding and clutch free-throwing changed the look.

Santiago Vescovi led the winners with 22 points. He hit three of seven long shots and eight of 14 overall. As usual, he made several other contributions. He was unusually bad from the foul line. He missed four of seven.

Jonas Aidoo, after he realized there was a war on the floor, gathered 13 rebounds and influenced many Ole Miss shots.

Zakai Zeigler was very good on free throws – nine of 10 and the devil in disguise on defense.

Example: The Rebels had a three-to-one advantage in a scramble for a loose ball. Ziggy dived into the pile and got enough hand on the prize to trigger a whistle and a jump ball call.

Zeigler came out of the pile in celebration, grinning from ear to ear. Rebs were left looking at each other and wondering where did he come from and how did he do that?

Another of the heroes got no mention in the statistics. Jahmai Mashack played 22 minutes without attempting a field goal but was a major influence in the victory. His job was to clamp down on all-conference guard Matthew Murrell. Oh my, did he do it!

Tennessee guards Jahmai Mashack #15 and B.J. Edwards #1 after Wednesday’s win at Ole Miss. (Photo by Ian Cox)

Murrell entered the game averaging 15.6 points and hit one of 11 shots.

“Can’t say enough about Mashack,” said Barnes. He didn’t shoot a shot. The job that he did to work a terrific player, it’s hard to play a player like Murrell. Santi started on him, but it was mostly Jahmai.”

The coach knows for certain that points win games but he was more impressed with Vescovi’s overall performance.

“He was terrific. Santi impacts a game in so many ways … he does screening, cutting, plays defense, he’s a terrific player. He impacts the game every single night, even if he’s not making shots.”

He was also the best shooter. He hit three threes. Other Vols went zero for eight.

Tennessee did not win with marksmanship – 37.5 percent in the first half, 48 after intermission. Ole Miss went the other way, 46.2 down to 28. Tennessee won the rebound battle by 10.

“I thought the first half they came out very aggressive, tough-nosed,” said Barnes. “They knocked us back and we had a lot of defensive breakdowns. Maybe as many as we’ve had all year. But you’ve got to give credit to them. They run really good offense.

“I thought the second half, it was much better, much more like we want to play defense.”

Expect no less. The Vols are 11-2, one of the best defensive teams in the country. There is still a missing link.

For the fourth consecutive game, Josiah-Jordan James didn’t play. He is struggling with knee soreness. He has appeared in only five games since off-season repairs.

There will be a brief “Happy New Year” pause. Tennessee plays Mississippi State at home on Tuesday. The Bulldogs are 11-1 and ranked No. 21.

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

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