BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Zakai Zeigler sat next to Tobe Awaka like a proud older brother relishing in his younger brother’s success following Tennessee’s, 56-53, win over No. 13 Maryland.
Awaka had played just 35 total minutes on the season before returning to his home state for Sunday’s top 15 showdown at the Barclays Center. Rick Barnes said earlier in the week that Tennessee would rely on Awaka more than anyone thought at some point in the season.
That time came just four days later. Sophomore power forward Jonas Aidoo was unavailable with flu-like symptoms opening the door for Awaka. He took full advantage of the opportunity.
“Preparation beforehand throughout the time that we’ve been out here was really essential in me being able to do what I was able to do. Talking to some of the assistant coaches like Coach Gainey,” Awaka said. “I sat down with Coach Barnes for a little bit beforehand. Just going through some of the stuff that I need to do to be successful. … In the game, instincts just took over.”
Awaka’s instincts are to rebound the basketball. That’s exactly what he did against Maryland. The Hyde Park native, who played his prep basketball at Cardinal Bishop in the Bronx, totaled five rebounds in his first stint before finishing with eight rebounds and a team best +17 when in the game.
“I start watching him and all I know is he went after every rebound. Every rebound,” Barnes said on the first time he saw Awaka in AAU.
Still offensively raw, Awaka totaled seven points including two second half put backs that proved huge in hindsight. While Awaka’s offense is a work in progress it’s his defensive naivety that’s kept him from earning more minutes. Against Maryland, Awaka was solid defensively and tallied one block in 17 minutes.
“It feels great,” Zeigler said of watching Awaka’s success. “Every time he steps on the court and I see him doing something, it just makes me smile. He’s like a little brother to me even though he’s three times the size of me. He’s my guy, so whenever I see him succeed, I just get a really good feeling. I can’t put into words how happy I am for him and I look to see him do it more.”
Awaka wasn’t the only New York City Vol that came up big for Tennessee Sunday. Zeigler — a Long Island native — earned game MVP honors thanks to a 12 point, three rebound and three assist performance.
Turnovers have been an issue for Zeigler at times in this young season as he adjusts to being the primary ball handler. Zeigler turned it over just once against a Maryland team that played full court pressure defense for the vast majority of the game.
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Zeigler also provided one of the biggest plays of the game. Tennessee was reeling in the second half with Maryland in the midst of an extended 24-11 run to end the game. Leading by two with three minutes and change to play, Zeigler drilled a huge triple to push Tennessee’s lead back to two possessions, sharing a word with a Maryland defender in the process.
“It’s really hard for him but he’s so competitive,” Barnes said of Zeigler. “I don’t know if you guys realize, people are always chirping at him. It kind of fires him up, you know? Again, he’s just a warrior in the fact he never gets tired and he’s going to keep playing and going to keep competing. I thought he did a great job dealing with the type of pressure in the backcourt the last two games.”
The big shot didn’t completely flip the momentum back on Tennessee’s side or end the game. The Vols scored just two points afterwards and Zeigler missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have — but didn’t — prove costly.
Free throws were a major point of weakness for Tennessee against Maryland as the Vols made just 52% of their attempts. It didn’t come back to bite them though as Tennessee got stops on the game’s final two possessions to clinch the victory.
The win is Tennessee’s second over a top 15 team this season and extended its winning streak to eight games entering next Saturday’s showdown at No. 10 Maryland.