By Justin Clemmer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – No. 5 Tennessee will move on after defeating the second worst seed in the SEC tournament, the 13th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels, 70-55 on Thursday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena.
The Rebels came flying out the gate, getting to loose balls, pushing the pace, and shooting at a high clip, keeping pace and even leading Tennessee for several portions of the first half.
Ole Miss made it clear early on that it did not want to play at Tennessee’s preferred slow pace. In the first half, the Rebels had 11 fast break points while the Vols who didn’t have any. Ole Miss forward Myles Burns led the way for the Rebels with a 12-point effort in the first half.
The Rebels eventually cooled off after making their first four triples all while Tennessee was gaining consistency on both sides of the ball.
“I think our zone broke a little of their rhythm,” said Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes.
Tennessee’s veterans lead the way on the offensive end. Josiah-Jordan James, Santiago Vescovi, and Olivier Nkamhoua combined for 43 points.
“It goes without saying: this team goes as the veterans go,” said James.
James would lead the team in scoring with 20, including a first half buzzer-beating three that set the tone for the rest of the game. Thursday’s performance was as good as he looked all year after dealing with several injuries that sidelined the senior for multiple games throughout the regular season. And good news for the Vols, he’s choosing the right time to heat up.
With star sophomore guard Zakai Ziegler out for the entirety of the postseason, the veteran trio of James, Vescovi, and Nkamhoua will have to continue to shine for the Vols to make any noise during March. However, that doesn’t mean they need to shoulder the load. Barnes noted two other players that helped the Vols to take control of Thursday’s game.
“In the second half we picked up our intensity on the defensive end,“ said Barnes. “Uros (Plasvic) and Jahmai (Mashack) brought the aggression.”
Tennessee’s defense, ranked the best defense in the country according to KenPom, held Ole Miss to only 22 points on 33.3% shooting in the 2nd half compared to the 33 points on 41.1% shooting the Vols gave up in the first.
Tennessee will move on to the quarterfinals to play the 4-seed Missouri Tigers.
The last time these two teams met, Missouri hit a miracle three-point shot at the buzzer in Knoxville that eventually gave them the edge of the Vols for the double-bye in the SEC Tournament. The game will be on Friday, March 10 and will tip off 25 minutes after Alabama’s game vs. Mississippi State, around 3:30 p.m. E.T. in Bridgestone Arena.