Tennessee basketball looked out of sorts offensively in the first half of its 73-56 win over Syracuse in its Maui Invitational opener on Monday afternoon.
These 2023 Vols looked like the 2022 Vols in the first half and would have trailed at halftime if it weren’t for Dalton Knecht’s spectacular play. The Northern Colorado scored 15 first half points including five in the half’s last three minutes, giving the Vols a lead they never relinquished.
But Tennessee led by just three when Knecht exited the game with cramps halfway through the second half. The Vols’ veterans stepped up and made winning plays while taking Tennessee to the finish line.
“Really tough hard-fought game,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said postgame. “I’m really, really proud of our older group at the end when we had some different situations.”
Super senior Josiah-Jordan James headlined a quartet of upperclassmen who stepped up on both ends of the court when Knecht went down. James has quietly been fantastic in his slightly reduced role this season. He totaled 15 points (two-of-four 3PT) and a game-high 12 rebounds against Syracuse.
The versatile wing defended guards and big men, grabbed big rebounds and hit big shots. James did anything Tennessee needed and the Vols were a remarkable plus-28 with him on the court.
Fellow super senior Santiago Vescovi shot poorly and missed all three of his attempts from the perimeter. But Vescovi found ways to score six points in the second half and changed the game when Syracuse went zone with his movement and passing. The Uruguay native totaled five assists and only one turnover with many of the assists coming when the Orange ran zone.
“I thought they (Tennessee’s veterans) did a great job offensively when they (Syracuse) went zone,” Barnes said.
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The super seniors led the way but they weren’t the only upperclassmen to make winning plays. It was the first game USC Upstate transfer Jordan Gainey played poorly this season. Junior guard Jahmai Mashack picked him up.
Mashack scored eight points including six in a two minute stretch with Knecht sidelined in the second half. The big offensive jolt was all in addition to his usual elite defense.
Fellow junior Jonas Aidoo helped Tennessee overcome its other key absence — Tobe Awaka suffering a right ankle injury in the game’s opening minutes. Aidoo played 27 minutes, totaling 13 points and 11 rebounds. The 6-foot-11 forward cleaned up the trash down low, hit a big midrange jumper and, like Mashack, played his usual strong defense.
“I would say Coach (Barnes) preaches rebounding the ball,” Aidoo said postgame. “That’s the main thing. If we rebound the ball, we’re pretty much gonna win the game, so we just gotta be aggressive all the time, offensively and defensively.”
Knecht spent 8:08 on the bench with cramps in the first half. During that time Tennessee outscored Syracuse, 21-17. Not only did they outscore Syracuse but they were efficient offensively. That was a far cry from the Vols’ poor offense in the first half.
Tennessee’s win over Syracuse wasn’t pretty but they showed how they can win in a number of ways and the number of options they have on each end of the court.