Photo via Tennessee Athletics
KNOXVILLE, Tn — In a season full of poor injury look, the health bug bit Tennessee again in the opening minutes of its Senior Day matchup against Arkansas. No matter. Without its energy leader, Tennessee created its own energy and suffocated Arkansas 75-57 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Here’s three quick takeaways on an impressive effort.
Zakai Zeigler Exits With Injury
I wrote about it with more detail here but any story about this game has to include the horrific break that happened just 2:54 in the game when Tennessee point guard Zakai Zeigler exited the game with what appeared to be a left knee injury.
Zeigler is Tennessee’s only true point guard and by far its best offensive creator. That’s all on top of being the energy leader for the team with what he brings on the defensive end every night.
Against a stout and physical Arkansas defense, the injury set Tennessee back in a major way. The injury’s effect was even greater due to the unavailability of guard Tyreke Key. The senior isn’t a true point guard but plays the position when Zeigler is out of the game.
But that put the burden on mostly Santiago Vescovi, who has proved to be a much better player when he can play without the ball. Vescovi wasn’t fantastic running the point but did enough to keep Tennessee afloat, dishing out five assists to three turnovers while adding 14 points.
Even Jahmai Mashack, who hasn’t played a second of point guard in his Tennessee career, spent some time at point guard against the Razorbacks.
With Zeigler sidelined, Tennessee had to lean on the nitty gritty way of scoring points. It responded in very impressive fashion.
The Future Delivers
Rick Barnes said earlier this season that he sees sophomore guard Jahmai Mashack and freshman big man Tobe Awaka the future of the program in a lot of ways.
The duo showed why Barnes believes that when the Vols’ most needed them Tuesday night. Mashack and Awaka are raw prospects but they both did what they do best against the Razorbacks.
For Mashack that was be a menace on the defensive end of the court. The California native played with unrelenting energy and made life extremely difficult for Arkansas all night. Mashack recorded four steals on the night and while he wasn’t great offensively, he got to the line a handful of times and totaled six points.
Awaka rebounds. He also has good touch around the rim for a freshman whose game is still very raw.
He did both against Arkansas, grabbing eight rebounds (five on the offensive) and scoring seven points.
When Zeigler went down it was clear Tennessee was going to have to win with energy and tough play. Mashack and Awaka both brought an abundance of it.
Tennessee Wins With Defense, Rebounding
The Tennessee men’s basketball team took a page out of the great Pat Summitt’s book Tuesday night. The Vols beat Arkansas with defense and rebounding.
Let’s start on the defensive end where Tennessee held the Razorbacks to 57 points on a dismal .905 points per possession. The Vols’ success started with their ball pressure as they turned Arkansas, and its shaky backcourt, over 16times.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Tennessee’s defensive performance was the fact that Arkansas — the SEC’s worst three-point shooting team — shot the ball well from the perimeter. Arkansas made eight-of-22 (36%) of its three-point attempts and was ironically the best part of its offense.
On the glass, Tennessee was tenacious and looked like it wanted it more against what’s a good rebounding and extremely athletic Arkansas team. The Vols won the rebounding battle 35-32 and 10-9 on the offensive end. Tennessee totaled 13 second chance points while Arkansas mustered only four. Those numbers seriously evened out in the game’s final minutes.
Facing adversity, Tennessee responded and dominated a solid opponent with defensive and rebounding. There’s no doubt about it, Pat Summitt would have been proud of the Vols’ effort.
Tennessee travels to the plains for its regular season finale against Auburn Saturday afternoon. Tip-off is at 2 p.m. ET with ESPN broadcasting the game.