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No Tennessee players scored 15 or more points, but the Vols still made easy work of South Carolina Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee pushed its lead to double-digits early in the second half and didn’t look back, earning a 66-46 victory.
While no one lit up the stat sheet for UT, the play of Zakai Zeigler and Josiah Jordan James was massive for the Vols.
Zeigler immediately provided a spark for Tennessee, scoring the Vols’ first two baskets on back-to-back possessions. After South Carolina opened an early lead in front of a mostly dead Thompson-Boling Arena, Zeigler’s spark was necessary to get the Vols going early.
“I thought Zakai coming in really brought some energy,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “I thought his ball pressure was really important.”
The freshman point guard has quickly become one of Tennessee’s best and most important offensive players. With front court scoring inconsistent at best for the Vols, the play of Zeigler, Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi is massive for Tennessee.
Vescovi has been the lone consistent player on this Tennessee roster and the young guards being able to be offensive threats more often is a huge task for this team.
One positive for Barnes is that he won’t have to worry about defense from ether of those young guards. Barnes said Tuesday was one of Chandler’s best defensive games while Zeigler brought the juice on the defensive end.
The 5-foot-9 guard totaled a game high four steals with one coming while matched up on a far stronger Gamecock forward.
“It’s just me-and-him. Who’s the better man,” Zeigler said of his defensive mindset in one-on-ones. “I’m going to stop him. That’s the mindset every time. Say I do get beat, I know I’m playing with the best defensive team in the country and my guys have my back no matter what and I have their back no matter what.”
One of the biggest plays of the night came at the close of the first half. With Tennessee distancing itself from South Carolina with a run to close the half, the Gamecocks’ Wright made a layup to cut Tennessee’s lead to three-points with under 10 second left in the half.
The Vols were hectic on the following possession, but got the ball to 23% three-point shooter Josiah Jordan James. The junior rose up and drilled the contested triple as the half expired. South Carolina never recovered.
Tennessee quickly pushed its six-point halftime lead to 13 points. James’ second triple of the game gave the Vols’ a double-digit lead that would never go back to single digits.
The left-handed forward finally provided Tennessee offense, scoring 11 points (two-of-four from deep) and adding 12 rebounds for a double-double.
“I thought Josiah was terrific tonight,” Barnes said. “He had a double-double but this team looks at him and they know he’ll find a way to help someway, somehow. I thought his first three was a great look at it. The second one he had to shoot … I thought for him at the end of the first half was a big play, but even without that, the fact that he was involved in so much defensively and even offensively moving the ball.”
Barnes called James the Vols’ “X-factor” and he really is. James brings it on the defensive end nearly every night and has the size to play on the wing or the interior. That versatility is massive for Tennessee but only truly beneficial when he makes defenses respect him.
That hasn’t been the case for much of this season but was in Tuesday night’s 20-point victory.
The Vols are looking to carry their momentum from this win to Rupp Arena Saturday afternoon as Tennessee looks for its first road win of the SEC season at Kentucky.