Despite a slow start offensively, Wednesday night’s matchup between Tennessee basketball and the McNeese State Cowboys was never really in doubt. The Vols won the game 76-40 in their first of three straight matchups against lower-level foes at home over the next week.
Rick Barnes’ team, ranked No. 13 in both polls, never trailed. They methodically pulled away for a 30-14 lead at halftime and then exploded in the second half, going on a 10-0 run within the first three and a half minutes. Throughout the second half, they continued to dominate and pull away.
With the win, the Vols improve to 6-1 and are on a five-game winning streak with a visit from the Alcorn State Braves on Sunday next up on their schedule. McNeese State falls to 2-6 and will next host the Ecclesia College Royals Monday. Here are three takeaways from Tennessee basketball’s dominating win.
1. Defense remained dominant, particularly down low.
Using a zone defense for most of the game, the Vols’ offense was slow at times, particularly early. They only had 11 points within the first 10 minutes. However, they had only allowed four. Key throughout the game was that they forced 24 turnovers and held McNeese State to 16-of-56 from the field and 2-of-17 from three.
Rocky Top had 10 steals and eight blocks. Down low, Jonas Aidoo became a star, as he had five blocks. Julian Phillips had two, and Santiago Vescovi had one. Phillips, Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler all had two steals each. Five different players also had at least five rebounds. Simply put, the Vols were dominant off the ball, mainly in the paint.
2. Free throw shooting was an issue.
Shooting was solid, as Tennessee basketball was 11-of-29 from three. Zeigler was 2-of-4 with seven points, B.J. Edwards hit his only attempt, and Jahmai Mashack and Julian Phillips were 1-of-2 to help the averages. Santiago Vescovi was the main three-point shooter, but he was only 4-of-12. Tyreke Key was only 2-of-6.
However, free throws were a different story. The Vols were 19-of-34 from the stripe. They drew lots of fouls due to McNeese State’s zone but couldn’t cash in. Uros Plavsic was 2-of-5, Phillips was 5-of-8, and Key was 4-of-7. Nobody else was alarming with their shooting, but those three should have all at least made one more.
3. Ball movement superb.
Poor free throw shooting and average shooting by the Vols’ sharpshooters was overcome by great ball movement. UT had 21 assists to just 11 turnovers against that zone. This is why Vescovi was able to lead the way with 16 points and Phillips had 12 despite neither shooting well. It’s also why Olivier Nkamhoua had 11 points and Key had 10.
Unselfishness went across the board, as Phillips, who did it all in this one, led the way with four assists. Plavsic, Vescovi, Zeigler and Mashack each had three. Tennessee basketball almost had as many steals as it had turnovers, and this unit deserves a lot of credit for that.