Oxford has proven to be challenging for Tennessee over the last several years, and tonight was no different. The 7th-ranked Volunteers opened SEC play against Ole Miss on the road, and they quickly realized that they had a difficult night ahead.
The Rebels, losers of four of their last six, jumped out to an early lead midway through the first half. Ole Miss worked their way to a 20-15 lead, thanks to a hot start from Amaree Abram. Kermit Davis needed someone to step up behind Matthew Murrell, and Abram was the answer early on, hitting two quick three-pointers.
That lead grew all the way out to 31-21, as Tennessee was struggling to slow down a hot shooting Ole Miss team to start. Santiago Vescovi kept the Volunteers afloat in the first half, scoring ten points and connecting on two three-pointers.
Ole Miss shot 46 percent from the field, scoring nine points off of Tennessee turnovers in the opening 20 minutes. They took a 34-28 lead into the break.
Tennessee slowly closed the gap coming out of halftime. The Vols tightened up defensively, holding Ole Miss to just two points in the first six minutes of the second half. Zakai Zeigler tied things up at 36-36 with 14 minutes to play.
You could feel the momentum changing as the Tennessee clamped down on the defensive end for the first time all night. Olivier Nkamhoua gave Tennessee its first lead in a long time at 45-43. Tennessee pounded the paint and Ole Miss had no answers for the defensive adjustments made by Rick Barnes to open the second half.
Zakai Zeigler was a pest defensively, creating multiple turnovers in the middle of the second half. That created offensive opportunities, and Tennessee converted them. The Volunteers built a seven point lead with 7:30 to play — on the verge of putting the Rebels away for good.
However, a couple of three-pointers kept Ole Miss breathing. Jaemyn Brakefield hit his fourth straight three on the night to cut the lead back down to 52-51, then Jonas Aidoo answered with a layup to take us back to a three point game.
Time was running thin, and Tennessee was in a dogfight down the stretch.
Vescovi hit a free throw, then Tyreke Key grabbed a huge rebound to keep Tennessee in control. Zeigler connected on a tough layup to make it a five point game. After a battle, it appeared that Tennessee was going to do just enough to survive.
Matthew Murrell, the biggest threat for Ole Miss, fouled out with two minutes left to play. Still, Daeshun Ruffin kept the rebels in it with a big three with a minute remaining. Tennessee committed an offensive foul on the other end, giving Ole Miss a shot.
Nkamhoua fouled out during that exchange.
Ruffin missed a three on the next possession, and Zeigler was fouled. He hit both, giving Tennessee a four point lead. The Rebels turned it over at the other end, putting this one on ice.
Tennessee held on for a 63-59 win.
Santiago Vescovi was the offense tonight, finishing with 22 points. He was 8-14 from the field, including 3-7 from three-point range. Jonas Aidoo’s 29 minutes and 13 rebounds were huge, along with Zeigler’s 9-10 shooting from the free throw stripe.
Tennessee gets the weekend off before hosting No. 21 Mississippi State on Tuesday, January 3rd.