It was all about payback Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena, and Tennessee got that and then some. In front of a rabid Rocky Top crowd, the heat immediately translated to the court for the Vols.
It was all Vols in the first half on both ends of the court as Tennessee led 46-32 at half, and it was fueled largely due to the guard play of Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler.
Zeigler came off the bench and immediately made a defensive impact nabbing a pair of steals by halftime. Chandler led all scorers at the break with 15 points, and Santiago Vescovi added 14 of his own though the rim robbed him of four extra points.
Zeigler was tabbed with a double technical foul along with a coach on Kentucky’s bench following a play that extended to the end of Kentucky’s bench. That sequence felt like a tone shift, and Kentucky was unable to match the Vols’ scrappiness, aggressiveness, and toughness the rest of the night.
An 11-minute field goal drought in the first half perfectly summed up Kentucky’s night, and TyTy Washington, who was a game time decision, left the game early in the second half due to injury.
National Player of the Year front-runner Oscar Tshiebwe struggled all night to find his footing, and that was in large part due to John Fulkerson and Jonas Aidoo’s efforts against Kentucky’s center. Fulky played his best game in a hot minute, scoring 14 points and nabbing a team-high eight rebounds. He was able to frequently take Tshiebwe off the dribble to the rim and getting him in foul trouble early. Defensively, he and Aidoo combined for four blocks inside against Tshiebwe, making life hard for Kentucky’s best player.
As a whole, Tennessee played a solid offensive game, but they struggled to do the simplest of things: make layups. Had they made even half the easy bunnies they missed, this is a 20 point blowout. However, the Vols defense was absolutely suffocating. They out-hustled Kentucky and made life miserable in transition for the ‘Cats, something they failed to do in their January 15th matchup.
Vescovi led all scorers with 18 points, going 2-of-4 from beyond the arc. Zeigler led Tennessee with four steals, and the Vols overall had nine for the game. Aidoo played his best game this season, blocking three of the team’s eight shots. Their quick hands led to multiple transition opportunities for Tennessee all night.
Player of the Game: Zakai Zeigler
Tennessee’s got a rising star on their hands. The freshman had shown flashes of his potential all season, but as of late and especially tonight, he’s played a bigger role in this team’s success. From the scrap early on with Kentucky’s bench coach to creating all kinds of chaos for Kentucky’s guards defensively, this game has his fingerprints all over it. Offensively, he was key in breaking the Vols out of an early lull in the second half, and he righted the ship in a must-win rematch for the Vols.
Zeigler added 14 points and four assists to his four steals. Should Tennessee continue to get this kind of offensive output from one of the nation’s best on-ball defenders, they can make a deep run in March.
Simply put, Tennessee doesn’t lose at home. They move to 14-0 at Thompson-Boling this season, and they’ve now won eight straight games in SEC play. The Vols currently sit tied for second in the SEC alongside Kentucky at 10-3 in the conference, and no one is playing as well as the Vols in the conference right now. Up next, they hit the road to battle a surging Arkansas team in Fayetteville.