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HOOPS RECAP: Kentucky completes season sweep of Vols with 66-54 win at Rupp Arena

Just a drastically bad first half from the Vols

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

After beating No. 1 Alabama just days ago, Tennessee turned in an absolutely listless first half against Kentucky, and despite a furious second-half performance from Santiago Vescovi, the Wildcats beat Tennessee 66-54.

Kentucky had four players score in double figures: Cason Wallace (16), Oscar Tshiebwe (16), Chris Livingston (12), and Jacon Toppin (11), while the Vols had just two players score 10 or more, with Santiago Vescovi’s 17 and Jahmai Mashack’s 16.

The ‘Cats led 39-19 after the first 20 minutes, holding the Vols’ offense to its lowest first-half scoring output of the season. The Vols 26 percent from the field in the game’s first 20 minutes, including a one-of-13 effort from behind the arc. Ziegler hit the team’s lone 3-pointer of the first half, but he scored just five points on 1-5 shooting, while Vescovi missed all three of his attempts from deep and was held scoreless in the half. The backcourt duo combined for four of UT’s six first-half turnovers.

I mean no offense by this statement, but it was Jahmai Mashack who led the team in scoring through the first 20, who scored seven points on on 3-7 shooting. That’s not the ideal roadmap to this team winning basketball games.

Mashack did most of his work around the rim, and that was really the only place Tennessee had any success early in the game. The Vols had 12 points in the paint and hit six of their 10 layups.

A big difference between this half and halves when the Vols play well: UK turned the ball over nine times in the first half, but Tennessee converted those giveaways into just one point.

In the second half, the Vols came to life with a 7-0 run, as Kentucky turned the ball over its first three possessions, and the Vols punished them for it. UK answered with three second-chance points of its own, but Ziegler hit his second 3 of the game at the 17:41 mark that cut UK’s lead to 42-29.

The Vols struggled to contain UK’s Cason Wallace — another player, like Brandon Miller, that Rick Barnes recruited HARD last season. I’m not real sure how close the Vols ever were in the race, but after going scoreless with five turnovers and four fouls in Knoxville, the Texas native scored 12 first-half points on his home floor.

Zakai Ziegler picked up his fourth foul with 15:13 left in the second half, and it kinda felt like a repeat of his performance against UK in Knoxville. Then, he scored just six points in 27 minutes as he was hampered with foul trouble all game. He finished with four fouls, but this is a completely different team without him on the floor. He’s got to learn to play that tough, suffocating style of defense without fouling so often.

After a cold first half, Vescovi came to life in the second half, similar to how he blew up in the second half against Bama. Santi hit a layup to cut UK’s lead to 49-39 at the 13:07 mark, then after the defense surrendered a dunk, Vescovi made it to the rim again and finishing with his left hand. By the under-12 media break, Santi had 15 points on 6-8 shooting, including hitting three of the four 3s he attempted after the first half.

When Zakai went to to the bench, Tyreke Key took his place, but it was another tough outing for the Indiana State transfer. With 10-ish minutes left in the second half. Key was 0-4 from the field, including three misses from deep, while hitting just one of his two free throws in 20 minutes of action. He’s been one of the most perplexing stories of Tennessee’s season. We watched him drop 26 on Gonzaga in the preseason exhibition to go on to see him average fewer than 10 points per-game through the year. That’s tough.

My take: the Vols’ lack of a second true point guard has forced Key into more handling the ball and initiating the offense more than he’s accustomed to. He’s always been a scorer, and Barnes has forced him into a de-facto PG.

UK extended its lead back out to 14 at the 10-minute mark, off some Oscar Tshiebwe free throws and a Jacob Toppin dunk. Mashsack cut it back down to 12 with another bucket in the paint, but at the 9:33 mark, he missed the front-end of a one-and-one opportunity. The Vols struggled at the line most of the game, going just 4-11 from the stripe.

Mashack drilled a second-chance 3 at the 8:39 mark and cut UK’s lead to just nine at 46-55. The two teams exchanged layups before the under-eight break, and Kentucky held its 57-48 lead with 7:38 to go in the game.

UK’s Lance Ware, a 32-percent FT shooter, hit one out of two, to bump UK’s lead back out to 10, then an empty Vols’ possession led to a ‘Cats’ fastbreak that ended up with a lob turned into a foul, but UK’s Chris Livingston missed the front end of the one-and-one. Ziegler turned it over on the next possession, and Kentucky’s Antonio Reeves punished them with a two-point jumper.

Uros got fouled on the Vols’ next trip down the floor, and bricked the front end of a one-and-one, but Santi scored his 17th point of the game on the Vols’ next possession to keep the lead at 10 points, 62-52 Kentucky, with just fewer than three minutes left in the contest.

Right before the break, a UK player committed a foul, and after the timeout, Mashack missed both of his free-throw tries. At this point in the second half, Tennessee had missed all six of its FT attempts.

With 2:09 left, a Ziegler-to-Oliver Nkamhoua bucket cut the lead to eight, and Cason Wallace hit one of two FTs on the other end.

With 1:17 left, Santi was trying to collect an offensive rebound, stripped the UK player but the ball rolled out of bounds between his legs. Big sigh.

It came down to free throws with UK up 64-54 with 1:14 left, UK’s Reeves missed two freebies and the ball ricocheted off a Vol player to give UK the ball back with less than a minute left. Another big sigh.

Kentucky ended up not scoring, but Jahmai Mashack committed UT’s second turnover of the half as he threw the ball outta bounds trying to make an outlet pass to Santi who was streaking down the near sideline. But it was a lazy, lackadaisical pass, and it tumbled out of bounds, all but shutting the door on a Tennessee comeback.


  • At 9-5 in SEC play, the Vols now sit at fourth in the conference, behind Alabama, upcoming opponent Texas A&M, and Kentucky
  • This is the second-straight awful showing from Santiago Vescovi in the first half. Against Bama, he had just three points on 1-5 shooting in the game’s first period. And then today, he was held totally scoreless through the first 20 minutes. Though, his 17 second-half points and three 3s in the final 20 minutes kept Tennessee in the game, it’s just really, really hard to win when the team scores 19 points in the first half. Getting Vecovi going earlier may help when the offense is struggling
  • Jahmai Mashack had a surprisingly productive day, though his 1-5 performance from the free-throw line definitely hurt the team. Regardless, Mashack scored from all three levels, finished as the team’s second-leading scorer with 16 points and led the team with eight rebounds. He ended up fouling out but only had one turnover
  • Tennessee is 0-3 this year when Ziegler accrues at least four fouls. He scored 21 in a loss to Arizona with four fouls, scored just six against UK in Knoxville in just 27 minutes, and then scored eight points today on 2-10 shooting with three assists, three turnovers, and of course, the four fouls
  • Nobody on the Vols finished with a positive plus/minus — the closest players were BJ Edwards and Olivier Nkamhoua, who both finished at -1. Edwards only played two minutes, so his plus/minus is sorta lost in the small sample size. Barnes is stubborn, but Tennessee desperately needs another player who can play the point. If Edwards can’t do it, then lets see it. But trying to force Tyreke Key and Santiago Vescovi into point guards ain’t working
  • The Vols hit 10 of their 17 layup tries and went 1-2 on dunks. Only three points off the bench, two fast-break points and 11 points off 12 UK turnovers
  • Olivier Nkamhoua continues to be an enigma. He’s averaging 10 points per-game, but he scored just six today on 3-9 shooting. He has 12 games this year in which he’s scored in double-figures — and four 20-plus point games — but he’s also put in 14 games during which he failed to score at least ten points. Of his four 20-point games, one came against Alcorn State, one came against Austin Peay and one came against South Carolina. The Texas game, when he went for his career-high 27, is really the only consequential game he’s made an impact in
  • The Vols got four point from Jonas Aidoo, who struggled with foul trouble and played just 21 minutes. He finished second on the team with seven rebounds and added a steal and a block, too. UT got a team-leading four offensive boards from its other youngster post player Tobe Awaka, but he scored zero points on 0-4 shooting. To round out the post players — Uros Plavsic scored just two points and missed all three of his free throw tries
  • As a team, Tennessee made just 4 of its 14 free-throw attempts and today’s game made four the 14th time the team has shot worse than 70 percent from the free-throw line. The free-throw issues is sorta a combination of not getting to the line enough (35-percent free-throw rate, which is in the 26th-percentile in the country, per CBB Analytics) and not hitting them when they need to. The Vols lost by 12 today and left 10 points at the free-throw line