Photo by Riley Haltom (@rileyhaltom on X)
By Matthew Silitsky
KNOXVILLE, Tenn – No. 17 Tennessee (6-3) won in a hard-fought battle 86-79 against No. 20 Illinois (7-2) at the Food City Center on Saturday.
Both teams got off to a hot start. While the Illini primarily played into their halfcourt sets utilizing the shot clock, the Vols took a different approach, pushing the ball any chance they got.
The Vols got the sold-out crowd going early. A few slams, defensive stops, and contested buckets from Dalton Knecht implored energy into the Food City Center.
Knecht lives for the shot. He started the game three of four and finished the half with eight to lead Vol scoring. Nothing came easy for Knecht; he had a target on his back from the start, but it did not matter.
Vol fifth-year senior Santiago Vescovi commanded most of the attention in the first half, allowing for the wealth to be shared. Jonas Aidoo, Zakai Zeigler, and Josiah-Jordan James combined for 15 at the half. Even after being dead center in the crosshairs, Vescovi did not blink. He contributed seven first half points and some stellar defense.
After a hot first half, the Vols cooled down. The Illini took advantage and went on a run, taking the lead as a result of poor interior defense, rebounding, and slow tempo from the Vols.
Illini head coach Brad Underwood was pleased with how his team played in the first half. He would not comment on the officiating of the game but mentioned the foul disparity.
“I’m not saying one thing about the officials but there were three fouls in the first half and 426 in the second,” said Underwood.
The first half ended with Illini in front 36-34.
The second half started slow for the Vols; struggling to find a look in the first four minutes of the second half. On the other hand, the Illini picked up right where they left off, getting contributions from guard Terrence Shannon Jr. He finished with 22 points being one of only three players scoring in double figures for the Illini.
Coming into this game, Vols head coach Rick Barnes said the keys were to switch effectively on defense and rebound the basketball. The Vols won on the glass 43-34 and held Illini to 35.4% from the field.
It did not take the Vols long to get back into a rhythm. The defensive pressure of Zeigler and Jahmai Mashack got the Vols points on the other end including a big-time steal at center court leading to a Josiah-Jordan James slam to give the Vols the lead. From then on it was all Vols.
The Vols got out to their largest lead of 12 with 7:04 left to play. Barnes made it very clear how important the roles of all eight guys that saw the floor were in the contest. Five players finished in double figures for the Vols.
Vescovi, who had struggled for most of the season, had his best game yet. Barnes said with the struggles of losing his grandmother and academic challenges, basketball has been really difficult. Barnes said how impressed he was with his All-SEC weapon.
“I thought he was really aggressive. When Santi is bringing that aggressive mentality, I think it affects everyone.”
Vescovi finished with 12 points, nine rebounds, three assists, and two steals.
Around 2:30 left in the game, the Illini had no choice but to play the foul game. Tennessee held on to secure the win and get their first ranked win of the season in front of a raucous crowd.
Tennessee will play against Georgia Southern Tuesday December 12 at 7 p.m. ET in Food City Center. The game will air on SEC Network.