Tennessee and Arkansas met in Knoxville tonight with quite a bit on the line in the final week of the regular season. SEC Tournament seeding, NCAA Tournament seeding — overall momentum heading into the weeks that really count — this was a big game atmosphere in Thompson Boling Arena.
That buzz in the arena quickly left the building, however.
Zakai Zeigler, the spark plug and heart and soul of the team, went down with a non-contact injury early. Tennessee’s star point guard hit the floor and grabbed his knee, very clearly in a lot of pain. He was eventually helped up and helped to the locker room.
Zeigler was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game.
Josiah-Jordan James entered in his place, coming off of his return from an ankle injury on Saturday. Rick Barnes has been dealt some tough hands in February, and you can add Zeigler’s potentially serious injury to that list.
Who would step up for Tennessee? It wouldn’t be Tyreke Key, who was out again with an ankle injury. James and Santiago Vescovi split lead guard duties, while Jahmai Mashack’s defensive energy really provided a spark. Notably, BJ Edwards did not see any action tonight.
Olivier Nkamhoua was doing some damage in the paint, scoring ten first half points. Tobe Awaka connected on 3-4 shots at the rim, continuing to come on strong down the stretch of this season. Tennessee won the first half battle in the paint, 24-8.
Arkansas, on the other hand, was settling for jumpers. The Razorbacks couldn’t get anything going to the rim, and Nick Smith Jr. couldn’t get much going from outside. Anthony Black connected on a corner three to stop a Tennessee run just as things were seemingly getting out of hand near the end of the first half.
Tennessee took a 34-25 lead into the halftime break.
The Volunteers came out and kept the pressure on, but a couple of Arkansas three-pointers kept the game within ten points. Ricky Council and Davonte Davis each made tough shots over the Tennessee defense, which was smothering and frustrating the Hogs.
The game got choppy from there, with both sides attacking the rim hard. Both teams took plenty of trips to the free throw line, with Tennessee slowly but surely extending their lead.
Arkansas just had nothing going offensively. It was gridlock in the halfcourt, and their only offense that was working ended up being forcing tough long range jumpers. Tennessee was capitalizing on the other end, with James, Mashack and Vescovi keeping the throttle down.
Tennessee’s lead was 15 points with 12 minutes left to play. The Volunteers were just more active on both ends of the floor, and that became more apparent as the game went on.
The Razorbacks were getting to the free throw line, but they simply weren’t converting — and they couldn’t buy a stop at the other end.
Santiago Vescovi took the lead to 17 with a ridiculously deep three, and Arkansas was quickly falling apart. Turnovers, bad fouls — it all added up to a 20 point lead.
Tennessee went on to win 75-57. The Volunteers dominated down low, holding a big advantage in both rebounding and points in the paint.
Nkamhoua finished with 16 points. Vescovi added 14.
You have to be impressed with how this Tennessee team responded tonight after Zeigler went down. However, you also have to wonder if they can replicate this performance come tournament time, assuming Zeigler isn’t available.
The good news is that James and Phillips are back. We’ll see about Tyreke Key, but that now becomes a guy that Barnes is going to need more out of.
Tennessee will close out the regular season at Auburn on Saturday afternoon.