It may have taken an extra period, but the Vols were able to overcome a rather bad offensive output en route to their first SEC win of the year. Santiago Vescovi led the team with 17 points and the team scored 15 points in overtime in order to make sure they came away with the win.
Ole Miss won the tip. The Rebels couldn’t start the game off with a bucket, but neither could the Vols. In fact, the score remained 0-0 until Matthew Murrell’s layup made it a 2-0 game with 15:48 left in the first period. Both teams combined for eight straight missed shots and four turnovers to start the game.
The Rebels’ lead grew to 8-0 as Tennessee missed its first 10 shots before John Fulkerson finally ended the misery with a layup in the post to make it an 8-2 game. Fortunately for the Vols, Ole Miss was just 3-of-9 from the floor at this point. Both teams had four turnovers apiece at this point, as well.
Tennessee’s sloppy offense continued, which allowed Ole Miss to continue to increase its lead, but even that was at a snail’s pace in itself. Regardless, the Rebels led, 13-2, with 9:43 to go in the first half. The Vols were 1-of-15 from the field, so far.
Uros Plavsic soon broke the slump with a layup down low, much like Fulkerson did earlier in the game, which made it a 13-4 game. Murrell drilled a 3-pointer a couple possessions later, but Josiah Jordan-James quickly answered back with a three of his own. Tennessee had a chance to cut Ole MIss’ lead to 16-9, but Vescovi couldn’t hit a very makeable layup and the Rebels led, 16-7, with 7:03 to go in the first period.
Instead of a 16-9 game, it became a 16-10 game after Justin Powell made his first shot -and 3-pointer- of the contest. Tennessee’s offense continued to miss shots, but the defense kept the Vols in the game by continuing to deny shots and force turnovers. The defense eventually helped narrow Ole Miss’ lead to one possession, but Murrell drained another one from beyond the arc to make it a 21-15 game with 2:32 left in the first half.
Vescovi and Jordan-James closed the half with a layup and a dunk, respectively, which cut Ole Miss’ lead to 21-19 at halftime. Ole Miss was 8-of-20 from the field, while Tennessee was 8-of-30.
The key at this point was turnovers and who was taking advantage of them. Ole Miss had 11 compared to Tennessee’s five. Yet, Ole Miss scored seven points off turnovers and Tennessee had only five points. Tennessee’s ability to create turnovers is what kept it in the game, but the inability to score points off of said turnovers is what prevented the Vols from taking the lead.
Tennessee also welcomed back Kennedy Chandler in the second half. Chandler committed two fouls early in the first period, so Rick Barnes had to sit him for the remainder of the first half in order to help keep him from fouling out. His presence on the court was bound to make a difference.
Both teams traded 3s in the opening 1:15 of the second period, but Ole Miss eventually made it a two-possession game after Tye Fagan hit a jumper. Vescovi’s ensuing 3 cut the Rebels’ lead to 26-25, however, and all of a sudden, the Vols were back in it.
The Vols were able to keep it within a one-score game for the most part before Fagan drilled a trey to make it a 31-27 game with 15:05 left in the second period. Tennessee responded to Ole Miss with a Plavsic layup and JJJ dunk to tie the game up at 31 points apiece. But another Fagan 3 put the Rebels right back in the lead. Murrell followed that up with a consecutive 3 of his own and the Rebels now led, 37-31, with 12:32 left in the game.
Tennessee quickly cut the deficit down to 38-36 as Fulkerson and Chandler hit their respective shots. Chandler then tied it up at 38-38 not too far afterward with a layup.
But Deashun Ruffin came up with a clutch steal and Fagan made the subsequent layup to put the Rebels back up, 40-38. Fagan then drilled back-to-back shots from downtown not too long after and all of a sudden, the Rebels led, 46-38 with 6:58 to go.
Zakai Ziegler drained a 3, which cut Ole Miss’ lead to 46-41, Nysier Brooks’ dunk pushed the lead to 48-41. The Ole Miss defense continued to press and render the Vols offense ineffective, but the offense was also missing open shots and failing to convert transitions, as well.
Just as things started to look grim, Vescovi was fouled as he hit a 3-pointer, which gave the Vols a chance at a four-point play. The veteran point guard made the required free throw and the Vols now trailed, 48-45, with 3:39 left in the game.
Tennessee’s defense stepped up by forcing a crucial turnover on the Rebels’ immediate possession following Vescovi’s made free throw. Tennessee couldn’t capitalize and turned the ball over, instead. Brakefield made 1 of 2 free throws on the ensuing possession and then Jordan-James drilled a 3 to make it a 49-48 game with 2:41 to go.
Ziegler committed a crucial turnover as he drove to the basket and tried to pass the ball off to Olivier Nkamhoua. Ziegler angled the ball incorrectly and put too much heat on the pass, thus causing it to fly by Nkamhoua and go out of bounds.
Ole Miss now had the ball, up 49-48, with 1:19 left in the game.
Of course it was Fagan who drove to the basket and made the layup to push the lead to 51-48.
But Vescovi wasn’t having it as he drained a 3 on the following possession to tie the game at 51 with 1:10 to go.
Ole Miss turned the ball over on its next drive when Fagan’s left foot stepped out of bounds as he received a pass from Ruffin. The Vols now had a chance to not only take the lead, but possibly end the game if they could get a defensive stop on top of an offensive bucket.
That didn’t happen. Luis Rodriguez was credited with a steal and now Ole Miss had a chance to win the game. Rodriguez and Co. couldn’t get the job done, but neither could Tennessee and the game went to overtime with the score tied at 51-51.
The Vols defense started the extra period off with an impressive stop that led to an Nkamhoua bucket, but Murrell’s 3-point shot put the Rebels back in the lead. Ziegler then responded with a 3 of his own to put the Vols back up by two, but Brooks made his own bucket to make it a 56-56 game.
And then who else but Vescovi drilled a 3 to make it a 59-56 game with 2:30 to go in overtime.
Brooks’ layup made it a 59-58 game, but Ziegler fed Nkamhoua a sick assist that led to an and-1 situation. Nkamhoua converted the opportunity, which gave the Vols a 62-58 lead with 1:15 to go.
Chandler put the finishing touches on the night with a layup that made it a 64-58 game with :26 left in overtime.
Tennessee would go on to win, 66-60. They are now 10-3 on the season and 1-1 in SEC play.
Tennessee is set to take on the No. 21 LSU Tigers on January 8. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. ET.