Before this one even started, Tennessee let us in on some bad news. Josiah-Jordan James, easily the most consistent offensive threat for the Volunteers to this point in the year, was ruled out late due to knee soreness.
Facing a tough Butler team in the Bahamas, that seemed like a problem. Rick Barnes rolled with Tyreke Key, Santiago Vescovi, Julian Phillips, Olivier Nkamhoua and Uros Plavsic to start — and that start did not go well. It was a sight we’ve seen too many times with this group, stagnant offense and poor shooting.
Butler built a 17-11 lead midway through the first half, powered by the three-point shooting of Jayden Taylor.
However, Tennessee found a groove to close the first half. A 10-0 run pushed the Volunteers out front as the offense finally started catching up with the defense. An aggressive Julian Phillips did his damage at the free throw stripe to score seven, while Zakai Zeigler added eight first half points.
Zeigler nailed a long three at the first half buzzer to give Tennessee a 28-23 lead at the break.
Tennessee kept up that moment to open the second half, answering a quick Butler run to maintain control. Julian Phillips found two buckets, and Santiago Vescovi finally connected on one from long range — and then another — and another. Three straight three-pointers from Vescovi blew this thing wide open for Tennessee.
It was a 17-1 run for the Volunteers, who very suddenly had built an 18 point lead. That was a welcomed stretch to see, considering how offensively challenged Tennessee has been to this point in the year.
With seven minutes to play, Tennessee held a 58-39 lead.
The Volunteers shut down Butler all night long on the defensive end. Jahmai Mashack was a particular pest on defense, blanketing in man to man and finding a couple of steals. Zakai Zeigler found three steals of his own.
Tennessee dominated down low too, winning the points in the paint battle 36-12. They were able to cruise to close this one out, finishing off Butler, 71-45. Vescovi led the way with 13 points, while Phillips followed with 11 points of his own. Tennessee ended up shooting 48 percent from the floor overall after shooting nearly 60 percent in the second half alone.
Finally, some offensive rhythm was found. Let’s see if they can sustain it from here.
The Volunteers now advance to face USC on Thursday. Tip-off is set for 1:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2. On the other end of the bracket will be Kansas taking on Wisconsin.