It was an untidy evening inside of Stegeman Coliseum for Tennessee on Tuesday night. With their final regular season game coming up on Saturday against Arkansas, this certainly wasn’t the tune-up Vols fans were hoping to see.
Early on, it felt like every time the Vols sought to break out on the offensive end, it was met with an ensuing turnover the next trip down that resulted in an easy two for Georgia. Shooting wise, the Vols were blazing the nylon early with a quick three from Kennedy Chandler and three early treys from Santi Vescovi.
A pair of blocks from Brandon Huntley-Hatfield led to early points at a quick pace for Tennessee, but Huntley-Hatfield couldn’t hold onto the ball on the offensive end, and it led to points in transition for UGA. At the eight minute mark, Tennessee found themselves trailing 24-18, and they had allowed seven points off turnovers, keeping Georgia in a game they would otherwise not be winning.
There to pull the Vols out of the mud was Josiah-Jordan James, a trend that would repeat itself throughout the night. James and Vescovi were the high scorers at half with nine each. James also played outstanding on-ball defense, forcing three late half turnovers and getting credit for a couple of steals as well. Jordan scored or assisted on 11 of Tennessee’s final 16 points heading into half, helping pull the Vols to a 35-35 tie at the break.
The second half saw much of the same out of Tennessee, though it started out promising. The Vols rode James’ hot hand to start the half, creating havoc defensively leading to easy buckets at the other end. James scored 11 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half as the Vols outscored Georgia 29-16 in that span. It only took 30 minutes, but finally a glimpse of the normal Vols showed up.
Unfortunately, it did not last long. James picked up a cheap third foul with 12:26 to go which got him benched for a good bit. From there, Tennessee once again got bogged down in a back and forth mucky battle with uncharacteristically sloppy defense and an unusual tentativeness offensively. The absence of James appeared to affect both ends of the ball quite a bit.
An 11-0 run for Georgia drew the game back within single digits at 64-60, and a surefire win for Rick Barnes’ squad withered away. John Fulkerson snapped the Vols out of there once-a-game offensive lull, scoring four quick points to extend the lead out to eight heading to the under-four TV timeout.
It was a rough night for the Vols bench otherwise as Zakai Zeigler played his worst game of the season. Zeigler struggled, going 0-4 from three with a pair of early turnovers, and it set the tone for how he played the rest of the way, leaving the Vols needing productive minutes from their reserves as the game progressed. Fulky was a bit of an unsung hero in this regard especially when James got into foul trouble, turning away a pair of shots and adding 12 points off the bench.
Tennessee did enough down the stretch defensively, stifling Georgia’s offense who had just had their way with the Vols prior to the under-four break. The Bulldogs struggled mightily down the stretch, making just two field goals in the final 3:01. Georgia began fouling with 1:25 to go, attempting to extend the game. However, the Vols went 4-for-6 from the line to close out the game, getting a very ugly victory.
Key Stat Lines
JJJ: 23 pts (8-12 FG, 3-7 3PT), 8 reb, 5 ast, 2 stl, 2 blk, 0 TO
KC: 16 pts (6-13 FG, 2-5 3PT), 2 ast, 4 stl, 4 TO
Santi: 11 pts (3-10 FG, 3-8 3PT), 5 reb, 3 ast, 2 TO
Fulky: 12 pts (5-8 FG), 2 blk, 3 reb
Uros: 2 pts (1-2 FG), 10 reb (3 off reb), 1 blk, 1 stl
Game MVP: Josiah-Jordan James
Triple J turned in a career-high 23 points and seemed to be the only thing on offense that kept Tennessee from a very ugly, avoidable quad-four loss at Georgia. Defensively, he had a major impact for the Vols, racking up a pair of both steals and blocks. It was great to see James snap out of a recent cold stretch, and as the Vols head into their finale against Arkansas, they’re going to need him to continue this level of play.
Let’s take a look at the good: Stegeman Coliseum had been a house of horrors for Tennessee for more than a decade. This was the Vols’ first win at Georgia since the infamous 2010-11 season, snapping a six game skid in Athens.
Now the bad: This was as sloppy as we’ve seen the Vols play all things considered. Yes, they probably played poorer at Arkansas, but Bud Walton is a madhouse. The arena of a now 6-24 Georgia team was certainly nowhere close to that environment, and the Vols looked just as uncomfortable and sloppy there. Chalk it up to never playing well at Stegeman, sure, but they absolutely need more out of their guards because they drive the ship. Chandler, Vescovi (who went scoreless the entire second half until sinking a pair of late free throws), and especially Zeigler have to be more efficient offensively. They always bring it on the defensive end, but a deep run in March rides on them.
As previously stated, the Vols have one regular season game left, and it’s in the friendly confines of Thompson-Boling against an Arkansas team who just beat the Vols in Fayetteville. Tennessee is now 22-7 overall and 13-4 in SEC play with a guaranteed double-bye in the conference tournament.