The last couple of weeks haven’t necessarily been smooth sailing for Tennessee basketball. Wednesday night’s matchup with Georgia was much smoother, however, at least in the first half, as the Vols won its second consecutive game 89-81.
No. 16 Tennessee (14-4, 7-4 SEC) was led by a career-high 30 points on 9-of-11 shooting from freshman guard Jaden Springer. He was one of four Vols to reach double-figures. Santiago Vescovi chipped in 19 points while Josiah-Jordan James dropped in 18, respectively. Two of Keon Johnson’s 11 points came on a spectacular dunk he had in the second half.
Springer and Vescovi set the tone early. Georgia scored the first bucket of the game after winning the opening tip, but Vescovi responded with a three on Tennessee’s first possession. Springer then knocked down a three before Vescovi hit his second to give the Vols a 13-8 lead at the first media timeout.
Tennessee’s first half lead blossomed to 18, when it led the Bulldogs 44-26 at halftime behind 12 first half points from Springer. Vescovi had 11 at the break as the Vols were 8-of-14 from the three-point line and assisted on eight of their 16 made shots. They had 13 fast-break points to Georgia’s two.
“We want to get out, we want to go, we want to get in the open court,” Vols head coach Rick Barnes said following the game. “We’ve been talking about it for a long time, and right now they’re looking to do it. When it’s not clicking the way you want it to, that’s where we’ve got to take care of the ball and whatever it is we want to get into — we’ve got different ways we can get into different things — but we have to continue to be aggressive.”
The second half was a much different story for the Vols. After out-scoring the Dawgs by 18 in the opening 20 minutes, Georgia won the second half 55-45 courtesy of eight second chance points and 20 points from freshman E.D. Johnson.
James began the second half with a three to push Tennessee’s lead to 21 out of the gate. The Vols maintained around a 20-point lead for the first 10 minutes of the final frame, leading by as many as 23. Georgia didn’t go down quietly, however, going on a 12-2 run to cut the lead to 10. The Bulldogs even cut the lead down to as low as six, with 1:09 remaining, as a result of forcing six second half turnovers. Tennessee had 17 for the game.
“You have to give Georgia credit,” Barnes said of his team’s turnover issues that allowed the Bulldogs to creep back into the game. “They got up there and they got their hand on it and would break it loose. But we did not make an adjustment when we went to our drive game.
“Otherwise, there were a lot of good things tonight. A lot of guys had some heavy minutes, and maybe fatigue had a little bit to do with it, I do not know. Jaden (Springer) I think played the most minutes that he played in his collegiate career. He had a nice night, and Josiah (James) did a lot of good things.”
Tennessee hit eight free throws down the stretch to close out the game after Georgia cut it to a 79-73 game with just over a minute to go. Vescovi hit four of the eight free throws, while Springer and Victor Bailey Jr. each knocked down two, respectively. The Vols finished the game 25-of-29 from the free throw line.
UT finished the game shooting 52% from the field and 10-of-24 (42%) from the 3-point line. Barnes’ squad held Georgia to 5-of-19 from three and forced 18 turnovers that led to 18 points for the Vols.
“Coach has been preaching getting easy buckets,” James said. “For this team to be at its best, we have to get out and run and we have the players that are capable of doing that and we’re really getting into a groove in our transition game.”
Tennessee now turns its attention to LSU (12-6, 7-4 SEC) after moving into a five-way tie for second place in the SEC standings. The Vols will travel to Baton Rouge on Saturday for a 2 p.m. tip on ESPN.
“They (LSU) have the eighth-ranked offense in the county and have guys that can score because they are a very heavy isolation team,” Barnes said of the Tigers. “They’re going to see who they can take advantage of and they are going to use that 2-2-1 press they always use so that’s going to be a challenge. They’re a very explosive offensive team.”