Tennessee got the job done today to open the Maui Invitational, beating Syracuse 73-56 in a game that was closer than the score indicated. The Volunteers were never in any real trouble, and they were able to put this one away late with some really good defense.
It was a slow start for Tennessee in Honolulu, however. The Volunteers got on the board first with a triple from Dalton Knecht, but couldn’t find much offense after that in the early minutes.
Naheem McLeod was really affecting Tennessee as a rim protector, tallying three blocks in the first half. That defense helped Syracuse build a 19-11 lead midway through the first half.
Finally, things started clicking offensively, thanks to — you guessed it — Dalton Knecht. A quick 7-0 run was started by a three-pointer from Knecht, and some solid play from true freshman JP Estrella, who was playing for the injured Tobe Awaka. Awaka appeared to roll his ankle early on and was quickly ruled out for the rest of the day.
A nasty Jordan Gainey dunk and another Knecht three had us tied at 24 all. Tennessee’s defense really ramped up the pressure, and Syracuse couldn’t handle it. It ended up turning into a 15-5 run to close the half, as Tennessee finally established a lead.
The Volunteers went to the break with a 30-25 lead.
Tennessee extended their lead to as many as 11 points out of halftime, but Syracuse found a way to fight their way back. Chris Bell chipped away, continuing to get in the paint and slowly cut into the lead.
At the ten minute mark of the second half, Syracuse cut it down to a three-point deficit. Dalton Knecht went down with an injury, giving everyone a brief scare, but it appeared to just be a cramp. Knecht was seen on the sidelines working through the discomfort, and would eventually return with two minutes left to play.
Judah Mintz took over with Knecht on the bench, getting inside and creating contact. He got to the line several times, keeping the Orange in it in a crucial stretch. Mintz drilled a three with seven minutes to go to cut the Tennessee lead down to four. Josiah-Jordan James nailed a three to pad the Tennessee lead back out to 57-48 a couple of minutes later.
The Tennessee defense really took over from here. Jahmai Mashack was a menace with his on-ball defense, making life tough for a Syracuse team that really wants to drive the basketball. Jonas Aidoo did his job in the paint as well on the defensive end.
With Knecht sidelined, the Tennessee offense wasn’t quite as potent, but they were doing just enough to maintain a lead. Mintz continued to do his part, but Syracuse couldn't find enough stops on the defensive end to make a real push.
Back to back buckets from Jonas Aidoo, then a steal and a layup from Zakai Zeigler put this one away. Tennessee finished on a 12-0 run to win, 73-56.
Tennessee ended up not needing Knecht down the stretch, which is a really good sign going forward. We saw some really good point play from Zeigler and Vescovi in crunch time, and Tennessee really leaned on the inside game with Aidoo to finish this one off.
Despite missing time, Knecht still led the way for Tennessee with 17 points. Aidoo ended up with 14 points, while Josiah-Jordan James added 15.
Tennessee advances to tomorrow night to face the winner of Purdue-Gonzaga.