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Vescovi, Vols’ Backcourt Pushes Tennessee Past Florida

NCAAW: Ayoka Lee Dominates

Tennessee’s backcourt of Zakai Zeigler, Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi combined for 51 of Tennessee’s 78 points as the Vols’ picked up their third straight win over Florida Wednesday night, 78-71.

Vescovi got the Vols going early, hitting a pair of triples in the game’s first three minutes to give Tennessee an early lead.

That’s when trouble began brewing for Tennessee. Florida went on a 15-0 run in just over four minutes to take a 23-10 lead.

While Tennessee’s defense wasn’t great during the run, it was the offense that disintegrated. The Vols turned it over on seven straight possessions and didn’t take a shot for five minutes. 

To repeat myself, Tennessee — a team that was averaging 12.67 turnovers a contest entering the game — turned it over on seven straight possessions.

Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes hasn’t seen anything like it.

“We are too many games into the season for our guards to turn it over the way that they do,” Barnes said. “It is just not respecting the game, not respecting the ball, and not respectingtheir teammates. I don’t know if I have ever coached a game in my career where we go five minutes without taking a shot. I am sitting there thinking, ‘What in the world is going here.’ But I think you have to give Florida credit for it.”

So, it feels odd to praise the back court that allowed that to happen. However, the trio was responsible for just three of the seven turnovers and made up for it the following 31 minutes.

It was the freshmen point guards that snapped them out of it. Zeigler made back–to-back threes including a banked triple from the near corner. Chandler hit a three on the following possession as the Vols answered the 15-0 run with an 11-0 run of their own.

“When I first shot it, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s good.’ It started curving and I was like ‘What?’ It hit the bank and I was laughing,” Zeigler said. “It went in. Next play.”

It’s no surprise that Zeigler was the one to spark the Vols’ run. The freshman energy bug is by far Tennessee’s best player off the bench and has made things happen for UT countless times this season.

“When Zakai comes into the game, something good normally happens, even if it doesn’t showup in the stat sheet. He’s going to create some havoc on the defensive end,” Barnes said.

“Defense,” Zeigler said of why good things happen with him on the court. “I feel like defense and energy, that’s my role.”

The New York native finished with 11 points on four-of-seven shooting, adding six rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block. It’s incredibly impressive and borderline mind blowing how dialed in the freshman is to nearly every aspect of the game.

Speaking of freshmen, Chandler had a game that displayed just how talented he is. The former five-star came out the gates hot, scoring nine first half points and dishing out three assists to zero turnovers.

The freshman left some things to be desired in the second half, making some strong drives into the paint before missing bunnies and turning it over three times in the second half. Still, Chandler tallied 17 points, made some winning plays late and maybe most importantly, the struggling free throw shooter was a perfect six-of-six from the charity stripe.

Despite the strong showings from the freshmen, the day belonged to Santiago Vescovi. The junior guard came out hot but spent 10 minutes on the bench in the first half after picking up two fouls — the second of which came on double technicals.

Barnes broke his habit of sitting players with two fouls the whole first half, going back to his veteran guard with just over two minutes left in the half. The move paid dividends with Vescovi scoring four points to close the half.

“Probably the biggest part of the game when we had to put Santi back in at the end of the first half so the game didn’t get away from us,” Barnes said. “As poorly as we were in the first half, we got a greatlook to cut it down to three before halftime when Josiah (James) missed a corner three. We hammered the backside and got a great look at it, but Santi coming back in those two minutes,it was critical for us at that time.”

Vescovi’s offense kept rolling in the second half and the lefty blew the roof off Thompson-Boling Arena when his transition reverse layup finally gave Tennessee the lead midway through the second half.

The Vols’ best and most consistent player turned in another great performance, tying a career high 23 points on six-of-10 shooting. Vescovi has now scored in double figures in nine straight games and is shooting 45% from three-point range in SEC play.

Tennessee’s offense wasn’t perfect Wednesday night. They had a pair of four-plus minute scoring droughts and another 2:51 scoring drought. Still, it was Tennessee’s best offensive game in SEC play.

The trio of guards are Tennessee’s three best offensive players and this team needs consistency from all three to get where they want to go. Vescovi is already there while the two freshmen predictably still have growing to do in that regard.

The Vols head to Austin for Rick Barnes first game back at Texas Saturday night. Let’s see if the offense can find some stability in a raucous environment.

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