Kermit Davis teams always know how to make a game a dogfight because of his matchup 1-3-1 zone. It caught Tennessee basketball off-guard in their visit to the Ole Miss Rebels Wednesday, and they trailed 34-28 at halftime.
However, they turned a corner in the second half to eke out a 63-59 victory. Although Davis’ zone kept it close, Rick Barnes’ touted the Vols’ own defense for flipping the script, as they held Ole Miss to 25 second-half points.
“They knocked us back. and we had a lot of defensive breakdowns in that half, maybe as many as we’ve had all year, but you’ve got to give that to them,” Barnes said in his postgame press conference. “They run really good offense. Our switches weren’t clean. A couple breakdowns we can’t have. I thought the second half, it was much better, much more like we want to play defense.”
With Tennessee basketball trailing 43-41 at the 11-minute mark, Olivier Nkamhoua hit back to back buckets within the next minute to put the Vols up 45-43. They never trailed again after that.
The interior defense of the Vols is what really stood out, specifically Jonas Aidoo. Coming off the bench, Aidoo had 13 rebounds, including six offensive boards, and an astounding three blocks.
“He affects a lot of things,” Barnes said of Aidoo. “The second half, I thought he was terrific in the lane on the defensive end.”
Two of Aidoo’s three blocks came on one possession. Ole Miss was trailing just 52-48 at the time with under seven minutes to go, so that was a crucial sequence.
In addition to his rebounds, he had eight points. He had 10 points and nine rebounds in his last outing, so he keeps knocking on the door for a double-double.
“It was definitely challenging,” Aidoo said of the game. “I just had my head down and coach told me to rebound the ball and I just took pride in rebounding the ball today.”
An underrated defensive star of the game was Jahmai Mashack. Like Aidoo, he didn’t start, but he had a huge impact coming off the bench.
Mashack didn’t shoot one shot but had two steals. He was the first player Barnes singled out for his defense when speaking to the media after the game.
“The job that he did to work a terrific player in Matthew Murrell, it’s hard to play a player like that, and what he did, and Santi (Santiago Vescovi) started on him, but it was mostly Jahmai,” he said. “Matthew is a terrific player, and he didn’t get a lot of great looks at it, and he can make then when he does get them.”
Murrell came in averaging about 15 points a game on the year. He was held to 1-of-11 from the field with just five points and four turnovers.
As a team, Tennessee basketball had eight steals. Vescovi, Zakai Zeigler and Julian Phillips each had two steals as well. Zeigler also had 13 points and even a block.
“We just let our defense do the talking instead of worrying about offense,” he said about how things turned around in the second half. “We just let our defense show and pick us up and let that lead to offense.”
Josiah-Jordan James didn’t play once again. Nkamhoua had eight points and was 4-of-8 from the field but fouled out. It’s not like the Vols didn’t have any offensive firepower, though.
Vescovi led the way on that side of the ball with 22 points. He was 3-of-7 from the three-point line. Although he was off from the foul line, going 3-of-7 from there as well, he was the most crucial player in breaking Davis’ zone.
“They were switching on me,” Vescovi said. “They were kind of denying me and top blocking me, so anytime I had a little space, they were trying to chase me, so that helped me a lot to try and get to the rim. Their five-man was backing off, not so much on the ball. That kind of opened the court a little bit.”
Ever the critic, though, Barnes had a lot to say about what the offense didn’t do in this game. He particularly lamented the guards not shooting quick enough.
Although he had six boards, Phillips had just four points and only took five shots. Most notably, though, Tyreke Key took just two field goals and missed them both.
“It is tough as a player. You feel it. You know when you have got something,” Barnes said. “Santi tonight, he kept driving in there. I know why he drives because they chase him into the lane. We keep telling him, it is great what he does. He picked up a charge tonight where he stopped short. Tyreke has to believe in his shot. We need him to do that.”