ORLANDO, Fla. — Tennessee senior forward Josiah-Jordan James said the Vols will go as far as their veteran leaders take them last week at the SEC Tournament.
So when James and fellow star Santiago Vescovi combined for just 11 points in Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament opener against Louisiana, the Vols appeared to be in bad shape. Louisiana coach Bob Marlin said as much postgame.
“If you would have told me he (Vescovi) would have scored three points, and we made more field goals than them and had less turnovers, I would have told you we would have won the game,” Marlin said.
But Tennessee had other thoughts and ideas. The Vols role players stepped up in a massive way and pushed four-seed Tennessee to a 58-55 victory over the Ragin’ Cajuns.
“Those guys have been doing it this whole season,” Tennessee guard Jahmai Mashack said of James and Vescovi. “We have to help them out to make sure they don’t have to score every point to win the game. I think that was important. When you have this, this isn’t going to happen a lot. When you have them scoring and then me and Tyreke coming and other games coming in and doing what they need to do, our offense is going to be even better.”
Mashack was fantastic against Louisiana. The sophomore brought his normal intensity on the defensive end and was one of two Vols that scored in double digits, totaling 11 points on an efficient four-of-six shooting from the field.
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Twice when Louisiana cut into Tennessee’s lead, Mashack scored four points in three possessions to regain momentum.
“When Shack’s playing like that, we’re in a good place for sure,” senior guard Tyreke Key said.
Key was the only other Tennessee player to reach double-digits, scoring a team-high 12 points. The Celina, Tennessee native wasn’t perfect offensively or as efficient as Mashack but Key was the offensive threat Tennessee’s needed him to be all season.
“I just saw him be himself and when he’s himself there’s few people like him,” James said of Key. “We needed everything from him tonight.”
The offensive production from Key and Mashack was particularly important as Vescovi spent 12 minutes on the bench in the first half with two fouls. When the First Team All-SEC selection never got into a rhythm offensively, the duo’s production proved all the more important.
“Playing through the first half without Santi is probably something we didn’t expect,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said postgame. “But we found a way, that’s all I can say, at the end of the game with them making shots and us not being as sharp as we wanted to be. But again, just proud of the effort that these guys gave.”
Mashack and Key weren’t the only Tennessee role players that stepped up. Uros Plavsic scored nine points on four-of-five shooting from the field. Jonas Aidoo was fantastic defensively against Louisiana star Jordan Brown and erased two shots that looked like sure fire baskets at the rim.
Aidoo went for a team-best plus-15 in his 20 minutes of action while coming off the bench for the first time in a month.
Even Tobe Awaka grabbed three rebounds and dished out two assists in eight minutes of action. With James and Vescovi struggling on the offensive end, it was truly a team effort for Tennessee to advance to the Round of 32.
Everyone stepped up on the defensive end as Tennessee improved to 2-2 in games it fails to score 60 points while the role players provided the offensive production.
Tennessee will need more production from its stars when it faces Duke at 2:40 p.m. ET Saturday afternoon in the Round of 32.