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Despite a furious second-half comeback, Vols come up short against Texas, 52-51

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Texas delivers Rick Barnes a tough homecoming

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

If you watched just the final 30 seconds of this game, you might have come away blaming Josiah-Jordan James for the loss. But without him, the Vols wouldn’t have even been in the game at the end.

The Vols battled back from a 17-point second-half deficit to tie the game with fewer than 30 seconds remaining, thanks mostly to a flurry of points from James and Zakai Zeigler. But a James’ foul that yielded one Texas made free throw and a James’ missed, open look from 3 sealed the Vols fate in the 52-51 loss.

Tennessee played fairly even with Texas through the game’s first half, as the teams traded leads and silly turnovers. The Longhorns were the more efficient team, going 10-19 from the field, but the Vols managed nine points off 10 Texas turnovers. Those buckets buoyed a Tennessee offense that never really looked quite in sync. The Vols got six points a piece from Kennedy Chandler and Olivier Nkamhoua, while Zakai Zeigler added five, but the Texas onus on keeping Santiago Vescovi from getting open shots from 3 noticeably hamstrung the Vols’ offensive potency.

The game shifted Texas’ way late in the first half with a Devin Askew 3 that left 16 seconds on the clock. Tennessee’s final possession of the half ended with Chandler taking a hurried shot, too early, that missed and gave Texas an extra possession that should have never existed. Nkamhoua compounded the trouble by fouling Courtney Ramey as he let go a heave from behind half court. Ramey’s free throws made it a Longhorns’ two-point advantage at the break.

Texas raced out to a 10-0 run to start the second half during which Tennessee failed to score a basket for over six minutes. And then things quickly went from bad to worse as Texas stretched out its advantage on a 22-7 sprint over the first 13-ish minutes of the second period.

Then James and Zeigler essentially willed the Vols back into contention during the final 6:38 of the game. The pair accounted for 15 of Tennessee’s final 19 points and a tip-in by Texas native Victor Bailey tied up the game with about 1.5 minutes left. The squads traded a few misses before Texas fed the ball to Timmy Allen in the high points with about 30 seconds left.

The refs called James for a foul as Allen rose up for a jump shot, and when I saw the play live, I thought it was a totally-blown, phantom call and even more egregious given the game’s outcome hung in the balance. Here’s the replay — what do you think?

This image makes it pretty clear that James fouled him, at least to me:

Either way, Tennessee got the ball back with six second left and a chance to tie the game.

It was a good look for James, who was Tennessee’s second-leading scorer on the night and 3-6 from deep before he let the last one go. The part that really gets me — Vescovi was wide open in the corner.

The last clip I want to call some attention to:

Refs tend to swallow their whistles late, but Nkamhoua got rocked here while there was still time left on the clock. Ouch.

Zeigler ended up leading the Vols in points with 12 in just 17 minutes. It’s also worth noting that it was Zeigler on the floor and handling the ball in the last play, while Chandler was on the bench. Zeigler’s a blur moving down court, so I understand him bringing the ball up as a sorta situational preference kinda thing. But Chandler not being on the floor at all is, well, interesting.

Vescovi had his worst-shooting game of the season, with just three points on 1-8 shooting. He still managed five rebounds, four assists and three steals while playing a game-high 37 minutes despite being in foul trouble most all game. This game really highlighted how important he is to Tennessee’s offense.

Tennessee drops to 14-6 for the year and continues its trend of struggling outside of TBA. The Vols have a critical four-game stretch coming against inferior teams before facing a near-infallible looking Kentucky team at home February 15th.