ORLANDO, Fla. — Tennessee basketball’s game plan against Duke was simple.
“We called it ‘taking them to the mud,'” senior Josiah-Jordan James said. “Being physical, making it a dogfight. … That’s what we do day in and day out. We don’t think anyone else can emulate what we do or do what we do on a daily basis.”
It’s a style of play Tennessee has often used this season but a phrase that was new ahead of the Vols’ 65-52 NCAA Tournament win over Duke.
The Vols are 2-2 in games they’ve failed to score 60 points this season. Rick Barnes’ eighth Tennessee team can muck it up with the best of them and make life miserable for opposing offenses.
“I think coach (Justin) Gainey came up with that,” senior forward Uros Plavsic said. “It just means never stop. If you’re feeling they’re about to stop than keep going. Don’t take your foot off the gas and our physicality, our toughness I think showed out there tonight. I’m really proud of my guys because I feel like they were tired against us because of that physicality. When you hit people all the time you set that tone and they’re not going to want to deal with it.”
The defensive success started with Tennessee’s ability to slow down Duke’s star freshman Kyle Filipowski. Tennessee’s displayed its physicality defending him more than anybody else. Plavsic fouled him hard a handful of times early while a Jonas Aidoo forearm cut him under his eye.
The power forward scored 13 points — six under his season average — on an inefficient six-of-16 shooting while turning it over four times.
“Our length bothered him,” Aidoo said.
In the first half it was a dominant defensive display. Duke scored just 21 first half points while Tennessee completely dictated the game’s terms.
The Vols punctuated a strong first half by going on an extended 14-2 run the gave them a halftime lead they wouldn’t relinquish in the second half. Duke scored just two points in the final eight minutes of the first half.
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The game’s style changed in the second half as Duke found more offensive success. The Blue Devils’ dribble drive penetration gave Tennessee issues— something Plavsic said the Vols were willing to give up some to stop Filipowski.
At one point in the second half, Duke made five consecutive shots but they never pulled closer than four points in the game’s final 15 minutes.
Rick Barnes often talks about just making shots. It’s a common basketball coach phrase because of how accurate it is.
Tennessee is not a team that wins game by making shots as much as they are a team that wins games by dragging opponents into the mud. But make shots is exactly what Tennessee did in the second half. The Vols made six-of-11 second half three-point attempts including three from senior Olivier Nkamhoua.
Nkamhoua was brilliant, going for 23 second half points on an efficient eight-of-10 shooting from the field. The Finnish citizen was Tennessee’s finisher, scoring 17 of its final 19 points.
“I don’t think there’s words right now that I can say that would tell y’all more than the game was,” senior guard Santiago Vescovi said of Nkamhoua. “He just balled out. … He came out with fresh legs in the second half and he got it going.”
Nkamhoua’s strong play was enough to push Tennessee over the top with relative ease. But it was the defensive that set the tone for perhaps the best win of the Barnes’ era. Duke’s 52 points were its fewest all season and the fewest in the program’s rich NCAA Tournament history.
The Vols game plan was to drag Duke into the mud. They did just that. They’re still dancing because of it.