Tennessee basketball won its eighth straight game Sunday afternoon, knocking off No. 13 Maryland, 56-53, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
The Vols jumped out to a 17-point halftime lead before withstanding a furious second half Maryland run. New York natives Zakai Zeigler and Tobe Awaka stepped up big for Tennessee in the narrow victory.
Eighth year head coach Rick Barnes discussed the play of Awaka and Zeigler and much more following Tennessee’s top 15 victory. See everything Barnes had to say below.
On being involved in a game in which the opponent only hit one two-point shot in the first half
“I’ve been in a lot of games where some teams don’t score any. But you know, we knew Maryland was going to spend a lot of time right in the middle third of the court. We play against teams (like that), we thought we could guard it. Second half, they didn’t do a lot different. They just started running basically two sets, and we were not doing a good job. Some of it was fatigue. We were switching our coverage and we weren’t sharp as we needed to be. But you have to give them credit. It was a good, hard-fought game both ways. Kevin (Willard) has done a great job with his team. They got going downhill. Obviously they shot the ball better (in the second half).
“The start of the game, I thought we defended personnel the way we had asked our players to do it. At halftime we talked about it. I don’t care who you (play), they’re going to make a push in the second half. And we bogged down in the second half. Missed too many layups. We had some point-blank layups that we’ve got to make. A couple big shots, I thought obviously Jahmai Mashack’s three was a big play for us, because we were teetering right there. Then certainly Tryeke’s three was a big play. Olivier’s in the last minute. We said it in the last minute, hey, we came into the game talking about defense and rebounding, we’ve got to leave the game talking about defense and rebounding. We had much better position. We were getting blow by, opening our hips up and just showing the rim to them. The last two possessions, we didn’t do that. Then Olivier came up and had a really big rebound. It was a big one. We thought they would pressure us at some time. I thought Kevin waited until the end, when he needed it. I’m not sure we got out of rhythm with the press. Maybe it looked frantic, but I thought our guys for the most part handled it pretty well. Santi called timeout not because of the press but because of his shoulder. He hit it pretty good. But again, it was a good hard-fought game both ways.”
On if he’s more disappointed to blow a big lead or happy UT found a way to win
“Olivier said it in the last timeout. I love it the fact our guys were really locked in there at the end. Olivier said hey, coach told us we’re going to be in games like this all year and we’ve got to find a way to win it. I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed in losing a lead if we’re doing what we need to do. We missed some shots. We had some layups, over-passed the ball a couple times. Not coming off when we had sets called. But like Tyreke came off that set, shot it, as opposed to thinking I’ve got to go downhill with it. We’ve got to get back to where the guys that we know want to shoot it need to shoot it. The rebounding ended up about even and that was the big difference in the game in the second half, too. The first half we were all over the offensive glass. That’s a major difference in the second half, rebounding. But we missed a lot of shots that gave them the opportunity to rebound the ball. Again, I’m proud of our guys. It was a heck of a win. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. And like I said, we’re going to be in a bunch of them. Been in a bunch of them. Certainly in Atlantis. Might as well get used to it. I thought the way we handled it, got to be good with it.”
On when they knew Jonas Aidoo would be out
“He hasn’t done anything in two days. That’s the great thing about it, you don’t want anybody to get sick or be out, but I told our guys regardless of what we’ve got, we’ve got enough. I’m really happy for Tobe (Awaka). I really am. He’s a guy that what he did today is what we knew he was about. He’s a rebounder. And he’s a force. He goes and gets it. As he continues to get minutes, it’s going to be — even his preparation coming in, like he talked about it. We spent time with him. I was with him last night, showing him some stuff. Then today the coaches sat down with him and made sure he understood the assignments on defense. But he’s embraced it and he really played well. Santi, without practicing for a week, I thought he gave us as much as he could. We were tired. Julian (Phillips) was tired. There’s no question he’s tired right now. But it will help him.”
On the offensive rebounding advantage
“When you’re missing layups and miss shots, you better go get some. Even Julian in the end, he missed one and missed the stick back. Turnovers, 11, and what, I think we had three or four at halftime. Some of them at the end, we were just putting the ball in the wrong guys’ hands at the wrong place. Zakai does such a terrific job. He was getting too deep a little bit. We were up against the shot clock. That’s not how we want to play. Some of that is fatigue and we weren’t at any point in time trying to hold the ball. Again, you have to give Maryland credit. They were patient. I’ll go back. We’re still going to have to shoot shots when we’re open.”
On if he was surprised Tobe Awaka played 17 minutes
“I don’t know if I’m surprised by it, because you know, sometimes players just need an opportunity. He’s put himself in position now, if I were those other guys, I would be concerned. I would. Because you can’t play them all. You can, but think about it, that gives us a terrific front lineup with Jonas, when he decides he’s going to get right. With Uros, Tobe and Olivier. That’s what we want. We want depth in there. We expect those guys to rebound and play defense. So yeah, I’m excited for them. If Jonas hadn’t gotten sick, who knows if (Awaka) has an opportunity to play today. But I’m telling you, he earned everybody’s confidence today. He’ll continue to have those opportunities.”
More From RTI: Three Takeaways From Tennessee’s Win Over Maryland
On if that kind of game represents what kind of season it has been, with a thin margin of error
“I think you look around the country right now, I’m not sure anybody has established themselves, on a higher floor than everybody else. It’s going to be a great year of college basketball. We’re still early into it. Improvement is going to be a major hurdle for everybody. December, you know you’re never near where you need to be. For us, personally, I know we haven’t been able to get everybody together. In some ways, you look at it, hey, once we get a chance to do that, it could be fun. Even without that, we found a way. This group found a way. But you look around college basketball, and I haven’t watched a lot of it, but yeah, there is very little (separation). People tell me all the time, man, if that team is shooting well, they can beat anybody. That’s true about 150 teams in the country. Making shots, it all looks pretty. But can you win when it’s ugly? I thought that second half was certainly ugly for us, but we found a way to win the game.”
On Zakai Zeigler’s performance
“He’s such a competitive player but I told him you have to stay in the game. We’re going to need you in this game for pretty much the whole game and it’s hard for him to wind it down when he wants to get after somebody. It’s really hard for him but he’s so competitive. 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. He actually did a nice job in the last game against Eastern Kentucky where they were all over them. He did a nice job today.”
On Tobe Awaka the person
“One, he’s very confident. I think the fact that when you go back— when I first saw him at the AAU game when I went to see him and I really went out of respect to Zakai and the program they have there with the lightning. Watched him with Riley Davis and he told me ‘this kid we can’t get him’ and I remember walking up and the team was warming up and I look over and Tobe was on the side very seriously stretching. Doing all that. I start watching him and all I know is he went after every rebound. Every rebound. Once you started talking to him and one day you should get G(arrett Medenwald) to share the text after we had the Zoom meeting, the text that he sent G wanting to know what he had to do to help his knee— I think he had something wrong with his knee or something, but you knew right off the bat because he could have gone to any Ivy League school but in his mind he felt like he could play at the highest level and that’s what he told us. That’s why he was still playing summer basketball cause he wanted to think about going back and maybe impress people. We took him and that was right after he did hurt his knee and he didn’t come to first session of summer school and from the time he walked on campus— he’s very calculated. He looks at you and takes everything very literal. That’s where I think he’s getting better. He’s not overthinking it. He definitely over thought it too much because he wants to be perfect. With everything he does he wants it done right. He did what he’s been known to do, rebound. Rebound and he’s getting so much better playing defense and the reason he hasn’t played early is because he wasn’t understanding our defensive coverage in terms of — typical freshman — understanding you have to go play-to-play-to-play. I think today is going to be a big, big step for him. I’m kind of excited about watching him on tape and seeing if he played as well as I thought he did.”
On Jahmai Mashack’s late three-pointer
“A big one. I thought when he got in early he got out of control. He just got excited but you know what, that was a big one. That was a huge play for him. A really big play. Again, we need him. Tyreke’s three was a huge play, O(liver)’s rebound, O was tired. There was no doubt. A couple of those passes he threw were simply fatigue but, again, we found a way as a group. That was the sweet part about it.”
free throws coach – gotta hit the free throws when they put us on the line.