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Seven players for Tennessee and Ole Miss laid on the ground near midcourt after diving for a loose ball in overtime. The referees called the fourth jump ball of the game.
It was that kind of night at Thompson-Boling Arena as the Vols’ avoided disaster to defeat undermanned Ole Miss, 66-60, in overtime.
Neither team scored before the first media timeout of the game and the Vols didn’t score until seven and a half minutes into the game, looking out of sync from the jump.
“We started the game with three turnovers that they had nothing to do with,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “When you do that and key guys … don’t give it to you off the bat you can almost feel the weight starting to mount on other guys. I thought that we got hesitant.”
The undermanned Rebels were 17.5-point underdogs but never trailed in regulation, with their lead peaking at 12 points in the first half.
Playing without leading scorer Jarkel Joiner and a pair of other rotation pieces, Ole Miss’ offense predictably struggled against the Vols’ stout defense.
Tennessee held its eighth straight opponent to under one point per possession and made life miserable for Ole Miss’ ball handlers, forcing 27 turnovers on 19 steals. Both of which are Barnes’ era records.
That allowed Tennessee to cut Ole Miss’ lead to one at halftime and to stay in a game it averaged less than a basket every two minutes.
“When we were not knocking down shots and it was hard for us to score the ball, I think the defensive part is what kept us in the game,” Santiago Vescovi said. “I think if we didn’t have that effort in the defensive part the game would have been totally different. We would not have been that close. I think that’s really important and like we say defense travels.”
If it wasn’t for an abnormally strong shooting night from the perimeter, Ole Miss’ lead wouldn’t have lasted nearly as long. Instead, the Rebels made 11-of-22 triples, posting a mark 20% higher than their season average.
Georgia transfer Tye Fagan was responsible for the bulk of the damage. The 28% three-point shooter on the season scored a game high 23-points, making five-of-six three-point attempts.
For 36 minutes, Tennessee shot it from the perimeter as poorly as Ole Miss did well, and with Kermit Davis’ zone defense stumping the Vols for the second straight season they came reliant on the long ball.
Tennessee was a putrid five-of-26 from three point line when Vescovi made an and-one triple at the under four media timeout. From there, the Vols made five of their final eight attempts from beyond the arc outscoring Ole Miss, 26-12, in the final 8:36 of the contest.
Vescovi did the heaviest of the lifting, nailing big shot after big shot, including the game tying three late in regulation and the steal and pull up three that gave Tennessee a lead it wouldn’t relinquish in overtime.
“I’m comfortable with it,” Vescovi said of taking big shots. “Coaches have given me confidence to take those shots. Also, my teammates, I know they trust me a lot and I trust them a lot.”
It was an ugly win in a game where Tennessee showed the same offensive flaws that have plagued this team all season and could be the undoing of this team later in the year. However, college basketball is a sport where the wins are often ugly and upsets are as common as charge calls.
That’s something Tennessee can take solace in heading into what’s likely to be a defensive showdown Saturday evening in Baton Rouge.
“We weren’t very good but I think good teams win games like that when they’re not playing good basketball,” Barnes said.