Photo via Tennessee Athletics
There’s an argument that the origins of Olivier Nkamhoua’s career night against No. 10 Texas came on Wednesday when he missed a ball screen assignment on the first possession of the game against Georgia.
Nkamhoua told Barnes his mind “wasn’t in the right place” against Georgia. But his mind was in the right place when Tennessee returned to the practice court. Before his 27 point, eight rebound performance against the Longhorns, Nkamhoua turned in the “best practice he’s had since he’s been here” on Friday.
The highlight? Putting teammate Jonas Aidoo on a poster with a thunderous one-handed dunk which Barnes observed “looked like he dunked it with his armpit.” The consummate elite teammate Josiah-Jordan James couldn’t help but taunt Aidoo, pointing and smiling at him until another teammate pushed him away.
“It starts at practice,” Nkamhoua said of his performance.
While the senior power forward’s fantastic Friday practice led directly to his dominant night, the original origins came weeks early in a one-on-one conversation between Nkamhoua and his veteran head coach.
“A couple weeks ago we had a long, long talk where he got emotional with me and just said, ‘I don’t know why but I want to do it and you know I want to do it,’” Barnes said. “The fact is I do know he wants to do it and the fact is he’s a guy, practice he’s coming back every night. He’s going to be up there in Pratt every single, or if this is open he’ll be here. You just keep working but I’ve also told him he’s got to embrace the mental side of it. More than anything, understand what he’s truly good at and he is good. There’s a lot of things he really does well.”
So, what was the “emotional” conversation about?
“It was a lot of stuff about my role and how I need to understand what the team needs from me regardless of what I can do and what’s going on around me because I’m a senior,” Nkamhoua said. “Just talking about, it’s not even just basketball. Talking about life. Talking about how you have to take care of business how you have to know where your head is at. What’s really important to you at that time. School is important. Basketball is important.
“I’ve spent three years working to get where we are and last year what went down. I worked towards being here. Being with my team, regardless of if I’m having good games or bad games. I worked towards being here in this moment with my team at the end of the year, tirelessly. We were just talking about stuff that he wants me to get better at and stuff he knows I can do. And he needs me to do for us to keep getting better.”
When Nkamhoua looks back on his senior season and Tennessee career, it could be difficult for him to find a more fond memory than Saturday night.
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In front of a raucous Thompson-Boling Arena, Nkamhoua dominated a vulnerable Texas front line. A career high 27 points on an extremely efficient 12-of-15 shooting from the field only starts to explain his effective night.
Nkamhoua scored early-and-often and was frequently the beneficiary of Zakai Zeigler’s fantastic point guard play and 10 assists.
“He was terrific. He was absolutely terrific,” Barnes said. “Really happy for him because I know how much he cares and how much he wants to do the right thing. To see him come out and play the way he did today, it was really special. Really happy for him.”
When Tennessee’s defense failed to get stops early in the second half and Texas threatened to pull within single digits, Nkamhoua scored on three consecutive possessions including a sweet up-and-under move we’ve rarely seen from him.
Scoring 13 first half points and 14 second half points, Nkamhoua never forced the issue and always delivered when Tennessee needed a basket to keep the Longhorns’ at arms length.
It was undoubtedly the best game of Nkamhoua’s career and also showed how dangerous Tennessee’s offense can be when he’s rolling. In a game it made just six three-pointers, Tennessee scored 82 points and posted a tremendous 1.323 points per possession.
The challenge for Tennessee is bottling up the inconsistent Nkamhoua’s energy and intensity against Texas and getting it every game.
“If I could figure that out,” Barnes dreamed out loud postgame about Nkamhoua finding consistency. “Maybe this was what he needed to get him going. I thought really searched out his spots on the floor. I thought he understood tonight where he wanted to get the ball, what he wanted to do. Never looked rushed. Never looked like he was not sure what he wanted to do. I just hope this gives him the kind of confidence he can keep going with.”