Tennessee outlasted Southern Cal, 73-66, Thursday afternoon to advance to the Battle 4 Atlantis championship game.
The Vols faced a 2-3 zone for almost the entirety of the game and found a way to win despite horrible perimeter shooting.
Three quick takeaways as Julian Phillips lifted the Vols to the title game.
Tennessee Gets Extended Look At Zone Defense
USC opened in a man-to-man defense against the Vols. It didn’t last long. The Trojans quickly switched to a zone defense in the game’s first five minutes and never went away from it.
It was the first time Tennessee’s seen a zone defense for an extended amount of time this season. So how did the Vols fair?
Average at best. The Vols struggles began with its inability to make perimeter shots ending the day three-of-18 from three-point range. That made constantly scoring against USC’s zone defense a challenge as the Trojans kept packing the paint trying to take away easy looks at the basket.
The Vols were still patient offensively and didn’t force bad perimeter shots— seen by the 18 three-point attempts.
“We didn’t want to settle for threes early,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “We went through a period where we shot three of them and we said hey, we’re not going to come down and just (shoot it).’ We like explosive plays and transition gets some of those. We wanted to play inside-out. I thought Zakai did a really good job of driving the ball.
Jonas Aidoo and Olivier Nkamhoua were both offensive threats around the basket and in the middle of the court. The duo combined for 18 points but Aidoo was not efficient in his shooting.
Tennessee ended the regulation with 62 points but scored just 25 in the second half. Given the perimeter shooting numbers, Tennessee’s offensive output wasn’t awful.
The key to Tennessee’s offensive success came from freshman Julian Phillips who had the best game of his young college career.
More From RTI: Josiah-Jordan James ‘Day-To-Day’ In The Bahamas
Julian Phillips Has Himself A Day
For the second straight game, star Tennessee wing Josiah-Jordan James was out with a knee injury that’s plagued him since the preseason.
With James sidelined, Tennessee was forced to put a lot on the shoulder of freshman wing Julian Phillips. The five-star freshman responded with the best game in his young college tenure. Phillips scored a game high 25-points on seven-of-13 shooting from the field.
“We told him we want you to go score, opposed to trying to get fouled,” Barnes said. “I thought last night he started trying to do that. That’s one thing during the recruiting process we loved about him, his versatility. He was always very good in that midrange area.
Phillips attacked the zone defense effectively from the high post and was one of the few Vols that could drive to the basket and finish over USC’s tall front court.
The South Carolina native wasn’t perfect defensively but continued his growth on that side of the ball. James is perhaps Tennessee’s best rebounders and Phillips successfully filled that void snagging eight boards against the Trojans.
Phillips kept making plays down the stretch of the game and was the best player on the court.
Suffocating Defense, Timely Shot Pushes Tennessee To Finish Line
Before Tennessee got the win in overtime, the Vols used a phenomenal defensive effort to extend the game by five minutes. USC didn’t score in the final 3:21 of the regulation as Tennessee used a 4-0 run to get the game to overtime.
Tennessee’s fantastic defense continued into the overtime period where the Trojans scored just four points due in large part due to turning it over six times. Phillips turned one USC turnover in overtime into two free throws that gave the Vols the lead.
Zeigler and Vescovi struggled on the day offensively, combining for just 13 points on four-of-19 shooting. However, the duo’s defensive efforts against USC stars Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson had Barnes raving about the duo.
“I can’t say enough about Santi and Zakai’s defense,” Barnes said. “Both of those guys just set a great tone for us.”
Still, the game remained tied with 1:45 left in overtime when Santiago Vescovi pump faked, side dribbled and nailed his first triple of the game to give Tennessee a three-point lead it never relinquished.
The Trojans never scored again after that point and Zakai Zeigler hit four consecutive free throws to ice the game.
“We knew we were going to have to take on those 1-on-1 matchups whether it was Santi trying to be backed down or Boogie Ellis trying to drive the ball against Z, and then hoping that we didn’t have to get into a rotation so we could rebound the ball,” Barnes said. “I just got to credit those guys because I thought they fought hard against two outstanding players … There at the end, I thought our guys really did a good job of forcing tough shots.”
Tennessee advances to the championship of the Battle 4 Atlantis. The Vols face No. 3 Kansas Friday night at 7:30 p.m. ET. ESPN is broadcasting the game.