Unlikeliest Of Heroes Step Up For Tennessee Against Vanderbilt

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    NASHVILLE, Tn — Vanderbilt had just erased an eight-point Tennessee lead in 1:48 of game time. A struggling Tennessee team was at a potential crossroads in the season. A loss would be the Vols’ fourth straight on the road and would drop them to 2-4 in SEC play with a pair of challenging home matchups on the horizon.

    A Tennessee offense that had made just two baskets in the last six minutes, created a wide open three for Zakai Zeigler. The freshman point guard’s eighth miss from the floor was his closest to going in all game, rattling around the rim before falling long. That’s where 6-foot-11 Uros Plavsic reached above defenders, grabbed his fourth offensive rebound of the game and laid it in to give Tennessee the lead.

    After an injury delay, Zakai Zeigler jumped in front of the inbound pass, dribbled around killing time and eventually drew a frustration foul from Vanderbilt star Scotty Pippen Jr.

    Zeigler went two-of-two at the line and Vanderbilt wouldn’t score again in the game’s final 49 seconds. Tennessee answered the 8-0 run with an 8-0 run of its own, earning its ninth straight win over Vanderbilt and sixth straight win in Memorial Gymnasium, 68-60.

    “We’re not going to win if we don’t bring some mental toughness on both ends of the floor cause they’re going to be aggressive, they’re going to go for steals, they’re going to get in the gaps,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said postgame. “I’m proud of them. To get beat the way we did Saturday and to bounce back and play another rivalry game against an extremely well coached team and a team that can really put numbers up. The way we were able to grind it out there at the end— I’m just really happy for our team.”

    The Vols showed mental toughness, unfazed by the blown lead late and an injury that knocked starting forward Josiah Jordan James out of the game in the first half.

    Tennessee stayed calm thanks to the heroics of two incredibly unlikely candidates: Uros Plavsic and Zakai Zeigler.

    Let’s start with Plavsic. The junior was fantastic, replacing John Fulkerson in the starting lineup and playing better than any big man on either team.

    The Serbia native scored 13 points on six-of-seven shooting, grabbing seven rebounds and nearly starting a brawl when Vanderbilt’s Myles Stute shoved Santiago Vescovi following the whistle.

    Plavsic brought the fight Barnes was dying for after the Vols’ humiliating loss at Kentucky, never backing down from a challenge or fight in Nashville.

    “It’s great because as much as we argue, he got our back and we got his back,” Zeigler said of Plavsic. “He’s the biggest guy out here so nobody’s really going to try and mess with him.”

    But Plavsic has brought far more than intimidation and being a great teammate this season. Admittedly, I didn’t think Uros Plavsic could ever play at this level. He may not truly be a starting level player, but he can absolutely play in the SEC.

    Plavsic has radically improved on the defensive end and is smarter and more decisive when he gets the ball.

    “It is really simple,” Barnes said of Plavsic. “He has strictly bought into the role that we need him to play. We tell him all the time if he will get in his head that he will play great defense for us, rebound the ball and on offense, we tried to limit him to a couple of areas on the floor where we want him to be effective. Then ball-screen defense, if he is not fatigued, he does a really good job there. Sometimes, he does a good job normally too letting us know he needs to get out. I think him getting to play more, that has helped him. He has really simplified his thought process on the offensive end. He is taking more seriously what he needs to do on the defensive end.”

    Then there’s Zeigler. The gritty freshman who graduated high school a year early and didn’t commit to Tennessee until after the fall semester had begun.

    The five-foot-nine point guard does so many little things well and seems to make a different impact in nearly every game he plays. Tonight, he couldn’t throw it in the ocean, missing all eight of his shots from the floor. 

    That didn’t change his aggressiveness. Zeigler kept going to the basket and did a great job of drawing fouls both there and elsewhere on the court once the Vols got in the bonus. The point guard tallied 11 points on 11-of-12 shooting from the charity stripe.

    “Just my basketball knowledge and me being a player understanding that at some point one shot can get you going,” Zeigler said of his confidence. “I was just thinking if I’m wide, wide open, take it, but if someone else is, hit them. I was thinking more so defense and getting stops.”

    The New York native did just that, serving as a pest on Pippen Jr. and the rest of Vanderbilt’s backcourt. Zeigler recorded four steals and his energy — as well as Santiago Vescovi and Kennedy Chandler — held Vanderbilt’s star to three-of-10 shooting from the field.

    “I pride myself a lot on defense,” Zeigler said. “I know my team does the same thing. I was just knowing, he ain’t about to get off on me. That’s not going to happen. He going to earn every bucket. Even after the game he said ‘you gave me a run.’”

    If you told Tennessee fans three months ago that they’d get by Vanderbilt thanks to clutch plays from Plavsic and Zeigler, they wouldn’t believe you. However, this is a Tennessee team still trying to figure out a lot about itself.

    The unlikely heroes made sure that “figuring out” came after a win over an instate rival, not a debilitating loss.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.