Photo via Tennessee Athletics
OXFORD, Miss — Santiago Vescovi is the Ole Miss killer and he doesn’t even know it.
A year after scoring 12 points in the final four minutes plus overtime to claw Tennessee to a comeback win over Ole Miss, the senior shooting guard did it again. Only, Vescovi doesn’t remember doing it the first time.
“To be honest that’s a fact I didn’t know,” Vescovi said Wednesday night. “I don’t remember the game against Ole Miss last year.”
The All-SEC shooting guard doesn’t need a good memory to remember what he did against the Rebels Wednesday evening in Oxford. Vescovi was the best player on the court, scoring a game high 22 points in Tennessee’s, 63-59, SEC opening win over Ole Miss.
“Just playing with confidence,” point guard Zakai Zeigler said of Vescovi’s performance. “He had a really good last game that really picked him up and I feel that this game, he carried that on. Santi is a dog. He’s one of the best scorers I’ve seen and played with. He does what he’s going to do.”
Vescovi drug Tennessee’s offense along in the first half, scoring 10 of its 28 points and making nearly half of the team’s field goals as Ole Miss built a 10-point advantage that the Vols whittled to six at halftime.
For the second straight season, Tennessee trailed Ole Miss by double digits. Vescovi, once again, proved imperative in the Vols’ comeback efforts. The Montevideo, Uruguay native added 12 more second half points including a transition triple that pulled Tennessee even with the Rebels and sparked a 9-3 run that saw the Vols gain control.
“He was terrific,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said.
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While Vescovi’s offense kept Tennessee in the fight and propelled them to the lead, it slowed down in the game’s final minutes. As is so often the case, Tennessee’s defense was going to have to win the day.
After allowing 31 points in the game’s first 15 minutes, Tennessee allowed only 28 points in the final 25 minutes.
“They knocked us back and we had a lot of defensive breakdowns in that half. Maybe as many as we’ve had all year,” Barnes said. “But you’ve got to give that to them. 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.”
As is always the case, Tennessee’s defensive effort was a team one. However, sophomore forward Jonas Aidoo anchored the defensive performance with one of the best games of his career.
Aidoo tallied career-highs in rebounds (13) and minutes (29) and defended the rim at an elite level in the second half. The sophomore tallied three blocks on the game including two on one transition possession where Ole Miss appeared bound to score and cut the Vols’ lead to two points.
“Just the fix-it plays like coach Barnes always talks about,” Aidoo said of the sequence. “Just having fix-it plays because those type of plays are going to win games and I had an opportunity and I just took it.”
“It looked crazy because I was under the basket and knew I had no chance,” Zeigler added. “Honestly, I was thinking about fouling, but once I saw him sprinting down the lane, I knew they weren’t going to get the shot off.”
Aidoo’s big night came at the right time. Uros Plavsic was horrific in the win, foul trouble limited Olivier Nkamhoua to 21 minutes and Tobe Awaka played just six minutes while nursing an ankle injury.
With Aidoo anchoring the defense, the Vols forced more turnovers than Ole Miss had made shots in the second half.
Aidoo’s strong defense combined with Vescovi’s big shooting night just enough for Tennessee to get out of Oxford with a win. Tennessee isn’t complaining as its hunt for a regular season conference championship starts the right way.
“It’s what you would expect in the start of the SEC,” Barnes said. “It’s a dog fight. … That’s just the way it is.”