Momentum wasn’t on Tennessee’s side entering the NCAA Tournament, but that didn’t stop the Volunteers from advancing to the round of 32 on Thursday night. Tennessee took care of business in Orlando against Louisiana, but it wasn’t without some drama.
The Tennessee defense, which has been the top ranked defense for the majority of the year, did its thing in the first half. The Volunteers held the Ragin’ Cajuns to just 19 first half points, 12 of which came from Jordan Brown. Brown was 5-8 from the field, giving Tennessee plenty of issues in the paint, but Louisiana needed another threat to emerge to contend for this one.
Tennessee got seven quick points from Uros Plavsic, who was 3-3 to start the game from the field. Jahmai Mashack hit a couple of jumpers to add six points, while Tyreke Key did the same. Santiago Vescovi wasn’t much of a factor early, going 1-1 from the field with just three points in the first half. Vescovi played just seven minutes in the first half, thanks to two personal fouls.
Tennessee took a 30-19 lead into half, despite 12 turnovers.
The Vols continued to work the paint to open the second half. Uros Plavsic continued to get position down low, then Josiah-Jordan James added two on a fast break. The Tennessee lead was 15, and you had the feeling that Louisiana needed some shooting to get back into this one. Louisiana was 0-7 from three point range with 15 minutes left to play — a number that was clearly going to have to change if they were going to get back into this one.
Jalen Dalcourt finally hit Louisiana’s first from three-point range with 13 minutes left to play. The only issue? Tyreke Key answered nearly immediately.
Tennessee had a comfortable 18 point lead, set to go on cruise control for the next several minutes.
Kobe Julien had other plans, however.
He drilled back to back three-pointers to keep Louisiana alive, then Brown connected for two more to make it a ten point game. Julien hit a layup to make it an eight point game with under eight minutes to play.
Julien was feeling it, and that continued with another three. Very quickly, Tennessee’s lead was cut to five points. It was a 13-0 run by the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Jonas Aidoo stopped the bleeding, then Mashack connected from the midrange to take the lead back to seven. Mashack went to the rim and was fouled on the next possession. He hit two free throws to make it a nine point game with under five to play.
Jalen Dalcourt splashed home a three with under three to play to keep Louisiana alive, then trailing by just six points. Another Louisiana three kept things interesting with under a minute to play. Two free throws from Julien cut it down to a three-point game with 23 seconds left to play.
Louisiana was forced to foul from there, sending James to the line. James hit one of two.
Delcourt misfired from three.
Louisiana made their push, but it came up short. Tennessee answered the call when it mattered, keeping the Ragin’ Cajuns out of striking distance.
Final score: Tennessee 58, Louisiana 55.
It was a balanced scoring night from Tennessee. Tyreke Key led the way with 12 points and Jahmai Mashack ended with 11. Plavsic had nine — Nkamhoua had eight and James had eight.
Tennessee overcame 18 turnovers to win.
The Volunteers advance to play Duke on Saturday. The Blue Devils took care of 12-seed Oral Roberts earlier on Thursday afternoon, 74-51. Clearly, Tennessee is going to need a better effort to beat Duke, which has now won ten games in a row.