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Tennessee picks up tough road win against Mississippi State, 72-63

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Life without Olivier Nkamhoua began with a tough road test at Mississippi State, and Tennessee passed.

Tennessee started Kennedy Chandler, Santiago Vescovi, Josiah-Jordan James, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and Uros Plavsic tonight in Starkville. That combo delivered with a six for six start from the field.

The Volunteers hopped out to an 11-2 lead, powered by four quick points from Huntley-Hatfield. Tennessee continued their pace, pushing out to a double-digit lead before much longer.

Jonas Aidoo entered the game as one of the first off of the bench — his first minutes in the first half of a game this year. He quickly responded with a couple of boards and a bucket, trying to settle in to his new role.

Tennessee’s lead didn’t last long. Mississippi State, led by D.J. Jeffries, fought back midway through the first half to cut into the lead. Iverson Molinar hit two threes, helping draw the Bulldogs closer.

Before too long, Tennessee’s double-digit lead was gone, and the Bulldogs found a lead of their own. You’re always in for a fight in Starkville, and this was no different.

Kennedy Chandler was able to stop the bleeding for Tennessee with a couple of blow-by layups to end the half, giving Tennessee a 35-33 advantage at halftime.

Mississippi State took back the lead with a 4-0 run to start the second half. James hit a three a few minutes later to regain the Tennessee lead, but Zakai Zeigler picked up his third foul shortly after, defending a three-point attempt from Iverson Molinar.

With just over 14 minutes to play, Tennessee led 42-41.

James’ offensive takeover continued, as the veteran guard connected on a couple more buckets to give Tennessee an advantage. Aidoo supplemented that effort with a block at the other end, keeping the Vols’ lead at 49-45 with under 12 minutes to play.

Garrison Brooks tied it at 49 each, then Chandler hit a dagger three and scored on a fast break on back to back possessions. A tie game was quickly broken up by Chandler, who was putting together a brilliant game.

The Bulldogs quickly hit back, connecting on back to back buckets, however. Molinar and Shakeel Moore tied the game at 54-54, as we went back and forth in the second half.

Brooks would give Mississippi State the lead with another three with five minutes remaining. The former Tar Heel was white hot in the second half, helping the Bulldogs weather the storm down the stretch.

James, just as he did all night, had the answer. It was another three for Triple-J, his third of the game, to regain the lead at 61-59. After an answer by State, Chandler’s speed once again earned him another layup.

The Bulldogs turned it over on the next possession — and Santi drilled a deep three.

Following a Mississippi State layup, Chandler went down and was in serious pain on the floor. He exited the game, but was able to return a few minutes later after what appeared to be a bad cramp.

Tennessee’s lead was pushed out to five, following a ridiculous finish from Zeigler.

With 1:16 left, the Volunteers just needed to avoid disaster from here on out. They did just that.

The Volunteers closed this one out with Zeigler, moving to their sixth straight SEC win. It was a massive missed opportunity for Mississippi State, which will remain on the bubble. Tennessee on the other hand, picks up a strong road win, 72-63.

James and Chandler has 18 points each. Vescovi and Zeigler added 11 points each.

The Vols are back in action on Saturday, set to host Vanderbilt.