Tennessee returned to Knoxville on Tuesday night, beating George Mason 87-66 at Food City Center. Junior center Jonas Aidoo led the way for the Volunteers, scoring 17 points and adding eight rebounds and four assists.
It was a bit of a slow shooting start for Tennessee, but the drought didn’t last. Two three-pointers by Zakai Zeigler pushed the Volunteers ahead late in the first half, and they never looked back. Tennessee got out to a nine point lead, then closed the half on a 6-0 run to take a commanding 39-26 lead.
Tennessee opened the second half with another 7-0 run to push the lead out to 20 points. The lead would get as high as 26 as the Volunteers finally found the win column after three straight losses.
Perhaps most importantly, Tobe Awaka and Dalton Knecht both returned to the floor after suffering injuries. Awaka has missed a couple of games after turning his ankle during the Maui Invitational, really limiting Tennessee’s front court depth. He returned on Tuesday night to play ten minutes, shooting 4-6 from the field to score 11 points.
“Well, he’s a difference maker,” Barnes said of Awaka. “When, again, I wasn’t happy with him and I told him in the first half, you can’t shoot those shots if you don’t have your balance. You just can’t throw it up there. When he does the things that we ask him to do, he can be a high level scorer. Offensive rebounding, he’s as good as there is. And when he’s focused there, he’s great at it. He goes and gets it. But, again, it all goes back to consistency. Not with Tobe, but with every one of our players. Can we consistently know that we’re going to get what we need to get every time we go out?”
Knecht avoided major injury after stepping on a defender’s foot awkwardly against North Carolina. He took advantage of the six day break, returning to the floor on Tuesday. Knecht scored ten points in 24 minutes of play.
Freddie Dilione also returned to action.
“I think he’s gotta get out there and get more comfortable,” Barnes said of Dilione. “Freddie’s gonna grow, going to go through some tough growing pains of understanding that it’s harder than he probably thinks it’s going to be. Taking care of the ball. People are going to press up on him as they did tonight and going to the basket. Probably in high school, he would have made that layup, but he didn’t. He’s working his way back. He’s the only guy that we knew we were gonna limit (his) minutes tonight, but he’s gonna learn. I mean, he’s young, he’s realizing what it’s about, I think.”
Santiago Vescovi played nearly 28 minutes, bouncing back from an ugly night against North Carolina. Barnes criticized Vescovi for complacency, but whatever issues he had were clearly put to bed. Vescovi scored seven points on 2-4 shooting from the field.
Josiah-Jordan James stayed hot, scoring 15 points on 6-9 shooting. The do-it-all guard added six rebounds and six assists.
Tennessee will stay home this weekend, set to host No. 20 Illinois on Saturday (Noon ET, CBS).