They had every reason to fold. Tennessee basketball let a huge game slip away this past weekend at home against the Kentucky Wildcats, a team they are better than and a team that just outhustled them in their house.
The No. 9 ranked Vols were visiting the Mississippi State Bulldogs without two starters, Santiago Vescovi and Tyreke Key, in a quick turnaround. MSU came in at 12-5 and took a nine-point lead with less than seven minutes to go in the first half.
However, Tennessee basketball didn’t panic. Rocky Top fought back to tie it up and then pulled away in the second half for a 70-59 win. Rick Barnes used the word character to describe what his team pulled off.
“That is a great character win for our team,” he said in his postgame press conference. “The fact that we had two starters out and starting the game with a lineup that I promise you they have never practiced together.”
Part of that lineup was Josiah-Jordan James, who has been battling an injury all year, having to insert himself back into the starting rotation. James managed to deliver.
For the fourth time this year, James scored double figures. He shot 3-of-7 from three to put up 13 points. Barnes touted his toughness to play 34 minutes after not being able to play 20 all year.
“I told him, ‘Hey, I’ll get you some rest and you tell me,'” he said. “I could tell he was tired, but again, his cardio, his toughness, that’s him.”
James and Julian Phillips were on the court together, two elite wings, both five-star recruits, one a senior and one a freshman. It worked well in the process.
Phillips, for his part, was dominant, scoring 18 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking a shot while hitting all of his free throws. Barnes said he’s been trying to get Phillips to be ore aggressive all year.
“We want him to do it,” he said. “He’s got to. You go back, early in the year, he was getting fouled. He got to the free-throw line how many times tonight? Four. He was getting there what, about five times (a game) early (in the season). Got back to doing it.”
Speaking of free throws and shooting in general, the Vols hit 14-of-15 from the stripe. Their outside shooting also returned, as they were 41.7 percent from three on the night, going 10-of-24.
Having to start at point guard, Zakai Zeigler thrived. He finished the game with 24 points, three steals, four assists and six rebounds. Barnes said key for him in this game was staying out of foul trouble given the lack of depth.
“He has a hard time doing that, backing up,” Barnes said. “His instincts, he wants to go play 94 feet. He wants to be aggressive.”
Effort plays were back too. Tennessee basketball outrebounded Mississippi State 39-31, and they also had nine blocks. Phillips, Olivier Nkamhoua and Uros Plavsic each had one. Nkamhoua also had nine boards.
However, Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka were the block stars on the night, the same way Zeigler was the steals star. Aidoo had four blocks, and Awaka had two.