Tennessee — just 6-7 in their last 13 games — met Duke — winners of ten straight — in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday afternoon. The momentum entering the game couldn’t have been any different, with the Blue Devils sitting as the trendy pick to make the Final Four as a No. 5 seed.
And with Purdue going down on Friday night, this one felt that much bigger.
Tennessee was ready to roll early on. The Volunteers were sporting their elite defense to start, forcing 11 Duke turnovers in the first half. The issue, as it had been all season long, as an inconsistent offense. But that issue didn’t last.
The Vols shot just 33 percent from the field in the opening half, but they found a quick 7-0 run to close. Tennessee took a 27-21 lead into the break after entering the game as 3.5 point underdogs.
14-2 run to end the half ✊— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) March 18, 2023
The lead grew out of the break, powered by a couple more three-pointers from Santiago Vescovi. Tennessee couldn’t buy a jumper from anyone else at that point, but luckily for them, Vescovi had it working from deep.
Olivier Nkamhoua also had it working. Shooting a scorching percentage from the field, Tennessee’s big man really got going in the second half. Inside and out, it was Nkamhoua leading the way. He connected on his third triple of the day to push Tennessee out to a 59-48 lead with under four minutes to play.
At one point, Nkamhoua scored 13 straight points as Duke had no answers.
Freshman guard Tyrese Proctor was the only thing working for Duke, but Tennessee’s defense was locking down the rest. The Volunteers had to have an elite effort on that end of the floor to beat Duke, and they certainly got that today.
Tennessee got another stop as the clock ticked under three minutes. Nine points was the lead with 2:33 to play.
Nkamhoua put the exclamation mark on this one to go up 11.
That was all she wrote — Tennessee is headed to the Sweet 16 with a 65-52 win that frankly was never in doubt down the stretch.
The Vols controlled this game from early on, and their physicality shut down the Blue Devils all day long. Not many gave them a chance today, myself included. The loss of Zakai Zeigler can’t be understanded, but Tennessee got a super-human performance today from Olivier Nkamhoua.
He finished with 27 points, going 10-12 from the field. Tennessee connected on 42 percent of their shots from three-point range, while holding Duke to just 28 percent.
Vescovi finished with 14.
Tennessee advances to play the winner of Fairleigh-Dickinson and Florida Atlantic in the Sweet 16. FDU and FAU will play tomorrow for the right to join the Vols in Madison Square Garden.
The Volunteers are now 8-8 all time against Duke. They will be making their ninth appearance in the Sweet 16 next week, looking for a spot in the Elite Eight — and you can’t ask for a better draw with Purdue going down on Friday night.