Texas A&M bullied Tennessee when the two teams played each other in Knoxville last season.
The Aggies dominated on the board as a result of the physical nature Buzz Williams prides his teams in playing with. Tennessee was out-rebounded by Williams’ first-year squad 46-21 and lost the game by five in Knoxville.
Saturday’s matchup in College Station went much differently. Texas A&M won the rebounding battle 31-23, but the Vols still managed to match the Aggies’ physical style of play.
“We went back and looked at that game and it was a really hard game to watch,” Vols head coach Rick Barnes said following the game. “We weren’t very tough. They came in and beat us any and every way that you could beat somebody. We talked about it, that’s what they do. That is part of their identity, their makeup is that they’re going to make you work on the boards.
“I thought our guys held their own against a team that is as good as anybody we will play against.”
Tennessee’s (9-1, 3-1 SEC) effort led to a 68-54 inside of Reed Arena to win back-to-back conference games after losing its first game of the season to Alabama last Saturday. UT held Texas A&M (6-4, 1-3 SEC) to 34% shooting for the game, forced 15 Aggie turnovers and held A&M’s best player, Emmanuel Miller, to eight points. Miller entered the game averaging 18.5 points per game, fourth-best in the SEC.
“(Our assistant coaches) do an unbelievable job of scouting teams and trying to give our players the best cheat sheet that they can give them,” Barnes said of Tennessee slowing down Miller. “I thought our guys did a really good job of helping each other, trying to do the things that we ask them to do through our scout… It is a multiple effort by a lot of different guys having to play against players like that.”
It only took Tennessee just over four minutes to claim the lead for good. The Vols led for 37:02 of the 40 minutes courtesy of sophomore guard Santiago Vescovi sparking them early and often.
Vescovi made four three’s within the first eight minutes of play to give Tennessee an early 16-9 lead. He hit back-to-back three’s twice within that stretch, to go along with an athletic Keon Johnson bucket sandwiched in between.
“I really don’t know what happened today,” Vescovi said. “I was not feeling that good in terms of rhythm on my shot… I was shooting in the warm up and couldn’t make shots, but I got in the game and they started falling so I just started taking opportunities.”
The Uruguay native finished with a career-hight 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting from the field and 6-of-10 from the 3-point line. He added five rebounds, three assists and two steals.
“Santi was terrific,” Barnes said. “It reminded me of his first game here when he walked on the floor with two days of practice against LSU… He has struggled a little bit lately. I think some of it is me maybe asking him to do a little bit too much. He wants to be good. He was playing with a lot of confidence today.”
Tennessee was able to lead by as many as 14 in the first half courtesy of Vescovi’s 12 first half points on 4-of-5 shooting from three. Texas A&M, however, was also able to find a rhythm from three. The Aggies made five three’s over the final 6:20 of the opening half to cut the UT lead to 37-30 at the half.
The Vols began the second half strong on the back of a John Fulkerson slam, a Vescovi three and a Jaden Springer layup. Tennessee’s 7-0 run to begin the second half pushed the lead back to double-digits, where it would remain for nearly the entirety of the remainder of the game.
A&M managed to cut the lead to nine with 7:38 remaining, but Tennessee immediately responded with a 5-0 run to push it back to double-digits. Vescovi would hit his sixth and final three of the game with 3:22 to go. It put UT up 14, 62-48, and proved to be the dagger.
“I thought we showed versatility today,” Barnes said. “We knew they were going to double team (John Fulkerson) today. We weren’t sure which way they would come with it. For the most part he did a good job of getting it out of there and that’s what got us going early. We knew that we were going to get the ball side to side.”
Fulkerson, along with Vescovi, was one of three Vols to score double-figures. The senior forward scored 11 points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked three shots. Springer was the other Vol to score double-figures. In his first career start, the true freshman scored 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting. He also had six assists and a rebound.
“Jaden Springer, I thought, played his best game,” Barnes said. “Jaden handled himself really well today. He’s a really gifted player, certainly offensively. I think he’s deceptive in what he does.”
After bouncing back with wins over Arkansas and Texas A&M following its loss to Alabama, Tennessee now turns its attention to Tuesday night’s trip to Colombia to take on South Carolina — well, maybe.
The Gamecocks are currently dealing with COVID issues within their program. So is Missouri, who is scheduled to face Vanderbilt on Tuesday night. As a result, the Vols and Commodores could end up playing each other instead. It would be the first of two matchups between the two teams as Vandy is scheduled to come to Knoxville next Saturday.
“Reid Sigmon (Tennessee deputy athletic director) just told me that he thought we’d know something definitely by tomorrow,” Barnes said. “By the time we get back to Knoxville, maybe we’ll know. That’s something that we’ve heard as well.”
As for now, Tennessee’s game with South Carolina on Tuesday night is still scheduled for 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2.