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HOOPS RECAP: Behind Ziegler’s 24, Phillips’ 18, Vols comeback to leash the Bulldogs, 70-59

What a second-half turnaround for Zakai Zieger

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Mississippi State Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Without guards Tyreke Key and Santiago Vescovi, Tennessee probably knew it was in for a struggle to beat the Bulldogs on their home court. And in the first half — it looked like there might have been a carryover from Tennessee’s recent loss to Kentucky that would reinforce that notion.

But with 40 minutes from Zakai Ziegler, 38 from Julian Phillips and 36 from Josiah-Jordan James — and a combined 55 points — the Vols escaped Starkville with a 70-59 win.

The game really was a tale of two halves: The Vols turned it over 11 times in the first half and just six times in the second. Tennessee hit 3-15 in the first 20 minutes, and then drilled eight of their nine shots from deep in the final 20 minutes.

Without de-facto starting PG Key and starting SG Vescovi, Tennessee turned the ball over five times in its first 11 minutes. Zakai Ziegler got the start at lead guard, instead of his usual off-the-bench, sparkplug role and was 0-2 from the field with three giveaways through the first eight minutes of game time.

The Vols clearly missed the gravity that Vescovi creates and had no consistently capable ball handler outside Ziegler. We got a lot of Jahmai Mashack dribbling the ball around the perimeter, which is not his strength. Josiah-Jordan James got the rare start, but he had just two points on 1-3 shooting with one assist through the games first seven-ish minutes. He finished with 13 points, three 3s, four rebounds and two assists.

The defense managed to turn State over three times in the first seven minutes but none of those opportunities ended up in points on the other end for the Vols.

Mashack missed a point-blank layup off an offensive rebound chance around the 10-minute mark with State up 13-10 — not a good omen considering the struggles the team had with converting layups against the Cats.

One possession later, Ziegler threw an entry pass into the stands for Tennessee’s ninth TO of the half and the fourth turnover for Ziegler. I don’t know what it is with Tennessee teams and entry passes, but man — it’s been an issue for years now.

At the 8:48 mark — a possession or two later — Ziegler turned it over, again. Instead of James taking over some of the PG duties, we got Mashack initiating the offense and then putting up a 3-pointer with 7:13 left in the first half with State up 17-10.

James finally broke the 0-8 scoring streak with a 3 around the five-minute mark, which cut the lead to 17-13, but State added two more to its lead with two FTs on the other end.

By the three-minute mark, James added two FTs to make it 21-15 in favor of State, then got a steal on defense than turned into a fast-break dunk for Plavsic. At this points, the Vols shot 6-21 from the field, 2-13 from deep and committed 11 turnovers but only trailed by four.

State got a dunk on its next trip down the floor to bump the lead back up to six points — 23-17 —and at this juncture, the Bulldogs led the Vols 14-6 in points in the paint.

To end the last 1-2 minutes, State missed 7 of 8 shots, and a Zeigler layup cut the State lead to 23-21 with fewer than a minute left. An empty State possession later, and Phillips got an offensive board off a missed shot and put it back in for two easy points that left the game tied 23-23 at halftime. 11 UT turnovers led to 10 State points. That’s gotta clean up.

State hit a layup on its first possession, and a 3 on its next possession. Thankfully, Phillips hit a 3 in the Vols’ offensive chance between the two State scores.

A James middy jumper gave the Vols the lead, but the defense immediately gave up another state layup. With 16:10 remaining, James ties the game at 33-33 with his second 3 of the game, and the Vols took a 35-33 lead with a Phillips put back the next possession.

Ziegler hit his first 3 of the game when the defense went under the screen on the pick and roll at the 14:30 mark, which gave the Vols its biggest lead of the game. On its subsequent possession, State hit one of two FTs, but Ziegler answered right back when he drained the second of back-to-back 3s — this one from the near corner to make the score 41-37 Vols.

With about 13 minutes left, a Tobe Awaka shooting foul put State on the line again for two more free points. But the real issue is that the foul came after State secured an offensive rebound, and the score counted as second-chance points for the Bulldogs.

State employed an extended 1-3-1 zone that immediately resulted in a Nkamhoua turnover at the rim, and State turned that giveaway into a Bulldog 3 and 44-42 lead.

Tennessee turned it over on a shot-clock violation on its next possession, and State scored two easy points on the other end of of the floor.

A put-back dunk by Phillips at the 9:25 mark broke a multiple-minute scoreless stretch for Tennessee, and then the defense forced a shot-clock turnover on the other end. Phillips went down and hit two FTs on the Vols’ next offensive possession, giving the freshman a game-leading 18 points and nine rebounds as of the eight-minute mark. Tennessee led 50-47, but State went right back down and hit another 3 to cut the lead back down to one point. The Bulldogs’ DJ Jeffries only had seven points at this point in the game, but he’d hit both of the 3s he’d attempted, including that last one that put State back within one point.

Going along with the theme of a second-half redemption after a poor first half, Ziegler went on his own 5-0 run starting with his third 3 of the game at the 6:43 mark, and on State’s next possession, a James steal turned into a Ziegler layup and made the score 55-49 with just below six minutes left in the game.

State answered with its own 3 on its next trip down the floor, but Ziegler pulled up for a heat-check 3 that dropped from 25 feet. State hit another 3 to answer, but this time it was James who nailed a 3 to make the score 61-55 with four minutes left.

After a couple empty possessions, Nkamhoua hit a 3 from the corner that was one of those “what in the hell are you doi... great shot!,” moments. That put the Vols up nine with fewer than three minutes left in the game.

Olivier had been just 1-2 from the field with five points before that 3. And after shooting 2-15 from deep in the first half, Tennessee was 8-9 from beyond the arc through 17-ish minutes of the final period.

State missed 1-2 FTs on its next offensive trip down the floor, but then the Vols turned it over on a 10-second call when Ziegler got trapped. But James immediately picked up a charge call, and Phillips alleyed while Aidoo finished with the oop to give the Vols a 10-point lead with fewer than two minutes remaining in the game.

Just to keep things interesting, Nkamhoua traveled with the pressure of State’s exteneded 1-3-1 zone bearing down on him, but the Bulldogs missed the shot after the turnover.


  • Ziegler had eight points on 2-8 shooting (0-6 from deep) with two assists and five turnovers in the first half, but in the second half, he had 16 points on 5-6 shooting (4-4 from 3-point range) and didn’t turn the ball over once in the game’s final 20 minutes
  • Without two of Tennessee’s two main guard available, it was time for freshman Julian Phillips to step up, and he did. He had 18 total points (13 in the second half), hit six of his 12 shots, including 2-4 from beyond the arc, in addition to 11 rebounds, five of which came on the offensive glass. The one knock — he had five total TOs, though three came in the first half
  • The Vols got just six points outta their bench, likely due to Zakai starting, but they also only had four transition points. That’s another area where not having a true PG hurts — converted guards don’t know how to run the break like PGs who’ve been doing it their whole lives
  • Tennessee’s complement of post player didn’t have its best game: Nkamhoua scored seven on just three shot attempts and had three turnovers, though he added eight rebounds for second-most of the team. Uros Plavsic had two points on four shot attempts with two rebounds. While Aidoo didn’t do much scoring — just two points on one shot attempt — he had four rebounds and four blocks. When his body fills out, the Vols are gonna have a legitimate rim protector against any frontcourt. Tobe Awaka maybe the most productive player per-minute, with four points, one rebounds and two blocks in just 10 minutes
  • James led the team in +/- at + 14, while Jahmai Mashack went 0-4 from the field and had no steals or blocks in 13 minutes and finished with the team’s worst -9 +/- figure
  • Tennessee had 18 turnovers to State’s 10.
  • The Vols hit 14-15 from the FT line tonight