No. 12 Tennessee picked up a solid win over NC State on Saturday night in San Antonio — and it was beloved point guard Zakai Zeigler leading the way.
“I’m back,” Zeigler proclaimed after the game.
Zakai, of course, is referencing his recovery from his torn ACL, which happened back in March. Zeigler worked his way back and was somehow ready for the start of the season, but understandably had some rust to shake off. On Saturday night, the old Zeigler was on full display.
For the first time all season, Zeigler really paced the offense. On a night where Dalton Knecht didn’t have it, Zeigler and Josiah-Jordan James really picked up the slack. Zeigler’s jumper was on as the junior point guard hit on four of eight attempts from three-point range. He also added eight assists and four steals.
“Well, he really in some ways dominated the tempo, the flow of the game in terms of what he did, I mean, the four steals were big in terms of disrupting them, but he did,” Rick Barnes said. “You look at his line. I mean, it’s a great line and you look at the fact that he got his players involved. He knew what he needed to do (with) his teammates, but it was our defense. The older guys closed it out at the end with their defense, but he was terrific tonight, playing the most minutes he’s played all year. What did he get? 38? That’s probably about 30 too many for him, but we’ll let him do it if he does that.”
NC State came roaring back in the second half to tie the game at 60, but Tennessee didn’t flinch. It was the guys that have been there and done that taking charge, too. James and Zeigler steadied the ship, stopping the run and putting the Wolfpack away.
The Volunteers went on to win 79-70.
“I said the other night, I have so much confidence and respect in these guys, and it’s their team,” Barnes continued. “And we’ve been, and they have been, through a lot of games through the years and the other night I wanted to get that game over with where it was no doubt where those younger guys could play and the older guys know that I wasn’t happy with them but what they always do, they fixed it.”
Tennessee was coming off of a sour second half against Georgia Southern earlier in the week. The Volunteers were actually beaten in the second half by the Eagles, who are statistically one of the worst teams in D-1. That effort didn’t sit well with Barnes, but his group responded nicely on Saturday night. Now it’s going to be about finding some consistency.
Through the first month of the season it was Dalton Knecht carrying this offense on his shoulders. Now, as Zeigler continues to get back to 100 percent, there’s certainly another level that this team can get to. The same can be said for Santiago Vescovi, who still just doesn’t quite look comfortable for whatever reason so far this season.
The Volunteers get a bit of a break on the schedule over the next couple of weeks. Tennessee will return home to host Tarleton State on Thursday night. They’ll have Christmas week off before returning to host Norfolk State on January 2nd.