Despite shooting sub-25 percent from the floor in the second half, the Vols managed to escape its game with the Tarleton State Texans with a 19-point win.
Vols’ big man Jonas Aidoo put up two points on a turnaround jumper fewer than 30 seconds into the game, but the game didn’t start out as quite the offensive exhibition Tennessee fans would have liked.
Three missed shots and three turnovers followed before Tarleton State got on the board and tied the game at 2-2. Zakai Zeigler hit a floater and Aidoo scored at the rim before the game’s under-16 media time out.
Jahmai Mashack hit his third 3 of the year to snap a two-ish minute scoring drought for the Vols. But Tarleton State hit a free throw, two fast-break layups and another bucket at the rim to take a 10-9 lead with just under 13 minutes left in the half.
Dalton Knecht hit one of two free throws to tie the game up — but other than a missed layup, those shots were his first attempts to score the ball, and that’s an issue in and of itself.
At the under-12 timeout, the Vols had four turnovers and four made field goals.
Tarleton State took the lead on a layup that went through Aidoo, but Knecht answered with his first 3-pointer since the Georgia Southern game.
On the next possession, Aidoo finished with another layup, through contact, but missed the free throw. The Vols led 15-12 with 10 minutes left in the half.
State turned it over on it next trip down the floor, but Aidoo picked up his second foul after a Tobe Awaka turnover. Tarleton gave the ball away again, and Knecht finished with a layup on the other end. 17-12 Vols as Tarleton State went three-plus minutes without a score.
Tennessee went into the under-eight timeout up three, 17-14, as State’s Lue Williams hit a jumper at the 8:07 mark.
The Vols went on a mini burst with two free throws from Santiago Vescovi and an ankle-breaking, step-back 3 from Zakai Zeigler.
Six quick points made it a 12-2 run during the previous five minutes of the game. 22-14 Tennessee with the largest lead of contest so far for the Vols.
Vescovi hit another 3 about 1.5 minutes later, which made it a 25-14 game. But Tarleton State finally broke its scoreless streak as a full-court trap backfired into an easy, run-out layup for the Texans.
Jordan Gainey came in and was a spark off the bench, hitting a layup and a 3 on consecutive possessions around the four-minute mark. Tennessee led 30-21 with three minutes remaining until the break.
The Vols closed the first half with a 7-0 run to make it 39-25. Seven players scored at least once and six players scored five points or more. For a game that started ugly, Tennessee finished the half with six players making 3s en route to a 54.5 percent mark from deep and a 52 percent effort from the field overall.
The Vols opened the second half with the ball and missed five-straight attempts at scoring in one possession — the final of which was a wide open 3 in the corner from Knecht. Tarleton State didn’t answer with points, but it stole the ball from Josiah-Jordan James on the UTs’ subsequent possession. Aidoo missed two more shots directly at the rim and Vescovi missed an open 3 before Tarleton State hit a shot at the 16:28 mark for the first points of the half.
Vescovi answered with his second 3 of the game to push the Vols’ lead back to 42-27 when the broadcast went to the under-16 timeout.
At around the 13-minute mark, Gainey hit a running layup off a curl, but it was just the second basket out of 15 attempts in the second half for UT’s offense. Meanwhile, Tarleton State scored twice inside a minute and cut Tennessee’s lead down to 44-35 with fewer than 12 minutes left in the game.
James hit his second shot of the game — a 3-pointer — with 10-ish minutes left, but State answered with a 3 of its own about a 1.5 minutes later. 47-38 Vols.
The Texans continued to dominate Tennessee inside, and by the five-minute mark, Tarleton State had sliced the Vols lead to just six points, 50-44. State led UT 24-14 in points in the paint and had outscored the home team 19-13 in the second half.
Two Vesocvi free throws pushed UT’s lead back out to 52-44 with 4:27 left in the game. On the subsequent Texan possession, Santi picked his man up full court and drew a crucial charge call at midcourt to give the Vols the ball back. Jordan Gainey took advantage of the extra possession with another tough, driving layup that put the Vols back up 10 with just under four minutes left.
Four free throws from Zeigler and two from Tobe Awaka helped keep the Texans at arm’s length — making it 60-46 at the 2:36 mark. State had trouble getting anything to drop as the Vols went on a 15-2 run to finish the game.
Triple-J didn’t shoot the ball well, but he led the team with 10 rebounds to go with his 10 points. Tobe Awaka set a career high with five blocks and scored five points thanks to a 5-6 night from the free-throw line. With just six points, Dalton Knecht has failed to score in double figures in three-straight games. He’s got 15 total points since he dropped 21 against Illinois.
The Vols finished with just eight turnovers after giving the ball away six times in the first half. That helped Tennessee win the battle for points off turnovers 15-2.
Zeigler led all scorers with 13 points, and while Santi hit just two of his six 3-point attempts, he finished with 12 points, seven rebounds, five assists and just one turnover.
I’d hoped the game tonight would have gone smoother so that the freshmen bigs could get some more run, but Cade Phillips and JP Estrella both played just two minutes. Barnes is going to have to find a third post player he can trust in conference play — even if it’s just 7-8 minutes here and there.
The Vols get one more game before SEC play starts when Norfolk State comes to TBA on January 2nd. After that, the Vols get 25th-ranked Ole Miss at home on January 6th.