Tennessee basketball earned its first ranked win of the season on Saturday afternoon, knocking off No. 20 Illinois 86-79 at Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center.
The Vols jumped out to a quick lead before struggling in the middle portion of the game that saw them fall behind. Then Dalton Knecht caught fire and Tennessee took control of the game and outlasted Illinois the rest of the way. Tennessee got balanced offense with five players scoring in double figures.
After the win, Tennessee coach Rick Barnes discussed Santiago Vescovi’s big game, the Vols’ effective defense and much more. Here’s everything Barnes said.
More From RTI: Three Quick Takeaways From Tennessee’s Win Over Illinois
On if Tennessee got the Santiago Vescovi of old against Illinois
“It was. He’s been such a big part of who we had been the last couple years. And to see him come out playing the way he did, he’s kept a plan. He’s had a tough semester. He lost his grandmother, that’s hard, but he would say it’s been hard academically. Because he’s serious about getting done what he wants to get done there. But just really proud of the fact that he and our older guys, I thought, really were well prepared for this game.”
On what Jahmai Mashack did in the second half
“Well, I thought the two biggest things, I thought he and both Zakai kind of changed the tide there when they came in with their effort, came up with some loose ball plays that we need. And Illinois is a terrific team. I mean, unbelievable how well coached they are. They’re older, they’ve been around. We told our guys for two days, regardless of the ebbs and flows of the game, I can assure you they’re not going to go away. I know our guys would stay in it too, but, they’re just a hard team to play. And their size, their length, they can throw a lot of bodies at you that way. But I thought those two guys when we were down there flipped the tide for us with their energy, their effort, and just coming up and creating some plays for us.”
On Tennessee’s defensive execution, trying to limit Terrence Shannon Jr.
“Well, again, you talk about it, it truly was a team effort because (Shannon is) such a good player. And he plays with such speed and acceleration that, if you don’t get more than one guy paying attention to him, he’s going to get where he wants to go. And everybody says he loves to go left, you play him right. He went down the floor going right too. And Brad (Underwood) does a lot of good things to get him in a position where he’s effective. But I thought Santi and Josiah, when some of the directions they were running, we were switching. And then obviously, Jahmai came in and did the same thing and. But one of the big keys coming in was our transition. We wanted to get back and build the wall and really take away as many transition baskets, especially with him being a one-man fast break and just trying to build that wall up there.
“But they made some shots, which you’d expect them to do. But overall, probably maybe the most focused I thought our guys were in terms of the details of our scouting report all year. I thought they were really, really locked in, in terms of knowing what we had to do on the defensive end. And we rebounded the ball against an outstanding rebounding team. I mean, they really are relentless. And again, ii you knew Brad, you expect that. They’re going to challenge everything you do and this is a nice win against a team at it’s going win a lot of basketball games this year. And they’re as good as anybody that we played up to this point. But a really great effort from our guys.”
On Jahmai Mashack doing stuff for Tennessee that doesn’t always get attention
“I thought Jahmai today played his role to the hilt. In terms of affecting the game in so many different ways. I thought maybe other than one play, two plays, I thought he did what we needed him to do on the offensive end. He embraces it and when he does that, he is a weapon. Today, he was huge today. One reason, too, was allowing Zakai not to play as many minutes because at the end of the game, he is going to be there some. The fact is, his role, what Jahmai does, his role is as important as anybody on the team. As much as Dalton, everybody thinks he is going to score the ball. What Jahmai does wins basketball games for you. He had a lot to do today with what went on out there for us today to win this game.”
On what he liked from Santiago Vescovi outside of just his scoring
“Aggressive mentality. I thought he was really aggressive and rebounding the ball. Again, I talk about fix-it plays with those older guys and they do help each other a lot that they can fix each other’s mistakes at times out there on the fly, which is obviously so important. But when he’s aggressive like that and getting, we got the ball inside, you know, and it doesn’t have to be just throw it in there, you know, we gotta get movement. And Santi goes down to score. I mean, we get that penetration. Jordan (Gainey) did it, ‘Z’ he’s gonna do it. Josiah did it. We we’ve gotta play inside-out. But when Santis bringing that aggressive mentality, I think it affects everyone.”
On what allowed Tennessee to out-rebound Illinois by nine
“Well, the point of emphasis, because we knew we were getting ready, we were going to compete against one of the best rebounding teams in the country. And they’re relentless. And I think our guys knew that. And they’re long and they shoot it. They do a great job of going to get it. And we knew going into the game that would be … we harped on that this week, obviously with transition defense. But getting back and trying to get our defense set. But we talked about finishing plays and, defensively because they’re great at it. They come and they’re big, they’re long. And we were obviously concerned about ‘Z’ (Zakai Zeigler) because sometimes we knew he’d be caught down there on the baseline. But he fought hard today and we knew they were gonna post a sub something, all that. But we knew it was gonna be a hard fought game. And that’s exactly what I think people got.”
On Tennessee’s 10-0 run in the second half, if it was more about offense or defense
“I did not think we finished the first half. We had a chance to finish the first half better. We missed a couple shots that we need to make those. But I didn’t think we were being as aggressive as we needed to be at that point in time. In the second half we came out, we dodged a bullet at the second half that we did some things that you can’t come out at halftime doing. But then that’s when I thought Jahmai and Zakai flipped it for us. The first couple of minutes of the second half wasn’t very good, and we got lucky. Really, when you think about it, I mean, the hook and hold play was, those things happen. And again, I don’t know of anybody that can happen when you got guys in there battling the way both teams battled. But that helped us. And at that point in time is where he felt like, you know, they had a little movement of momentum right there. And then I thought we handled it. But then Zakai and Shack came in and just found a way to get it done. And when Dalton came back, he obviously changed some things offensively. And you hate to get into an offense-defense situation at the end, but we have to do what we have to do.”
On Tennessee shortening the rotation and only using eight players
“That will be determined on preparation two days before. And we told our young guys last night that we weren’t real happy. And. again, with their preparation in terms of having attention to detail, I thought Cam (Carr) and Cade (Phillips) were locked in. And we knew that if we needed to get a chance, they probably would’ve played a little bit. But if guys aren’t, if they don’t understand you start winning this game two days out. And so I could’ve told you, if you could ask me before the game, a couple guys weren’t gonna play. I could’ve told you absolutely they’re not gonna play because of their preparation. And it’s gonna be a great lesson for them to learn if they choose to learn it because, we know that when you’re in a game like this and really all games, every possession matters.
And we expect high level preparation from everybody, especially when you got a group of guys that I think have done a good job trying to help them. But we expect it, and I hope it’s a couple guys will learn some lessons from it and get ready to play because I’ve said it before, we need them all. We can get so much better if everybody’s is willing to play the role we need them to play. And I thought today guys really played the roles maybe the best we we have all year in understanding what we needed.
Are we perfect? No, but we’re gonna get there. But I wouldn’t say that I’ve made up my mind for the rest of the year. We’re gonna shorten bench. We have to, we will. But players make you play them. Players will just, I’ve always said that players decide who’s going to play and we see a guy that’s doing everything he can and practice, we know that we want to get them in there. We’re gonna find a way to get them a minute here or two minutes there because we want to continue to build this thing, but we’re not giving away minutes to anybody.”
On Zakai Zeigler diving for a loose ball and it leading to a Josiah-Jordan James dunk, and what it meant to the team
“We’ve watched him over the last couple weeks get back to (himself), but that’s who he is. That’s what endeared him into our fans here. That’s in his DNA. You wish every guy had that about them. We got some guys that are gonna fight like that, but that’s who he is. He realizes that he’s always been doubted for a long time. That’s what I’ve talked to him about. You know what, you’ve gotta be who you are. You know, you’ve gotta get back down the floor. You gotta start being a problem to people on the defensive end. You’ve gotta let people not enjoy coming in the game. You gotta get people not wanting you to guard the ball in the back court. He’s getting closer. He’s still not totally there, but, his floor game today was great. I thought his leadership was terrific and his communication from the coaching standpoint to the court, today, was really as good as it’s ever been.”
On how he feels like they handled the full-court press at the end of the game
“Well, we gotta be better with it. They’re going to go trap it, and now we had a couple of ’em that we shouldn’t have had, where Josiah lost the ball there, that he didn’t execute what we did the next time we did it when we got the ball where we wanted it, but the fact is we’re gonna be better there. Those situations come up, stuff that you work on, but still, when the game’s and the lights are on, you gotta handle it. We didn’t get to our spots the way we needed to. We’ll have to think about when people are really doubling with that size, Zakai not trying to be the first guy to catch the ball. We actually went to that trying to get it back to him and letting him go with it.
“Again, they’re a well-coached team and Brad’s (Underwood) is gonna make his adjustments, which he did and it’s never gonna be easy. I don’t know what we were from the free throw line, but I thought we left some there with guys that we need to knock it down for us. It’s really a nice win against an outstanding team and well-coached team that our guys fought hard to get the win.”
On how the energy helped them
“I think our guys love it. They love our fans. Brad (Underwood) made the comment that someone had told me that he thought it was important they take the crowd outta the game. The way you take the crowd outta the game is, the home team doesn’t play hard. And they’re like looking like a bunch of guys come in and they want to win more and all this and all that. Illinois can do that. They can make you look like you’re not playing hard because they get so many good second effort plays and offensive rebounds and they do a lot of things that can get a crowd on their heels. But I thought overall, they actually did that. When you think about the end of the first half and the start of the second half, and in those plays that we got, our fans got back in the game.
“That’s where, honestly, you wish fans could stay with it all the time because as much as I wanna play perfect, we’re not going to. Because the other team’s not going to let us. But we have great fans and our fans and our players love our fans. There’s no doubt they love the energy that this building brings. It’s the first ranked team (we’ve played at home), but they’ve been supportive of us all year. Not many programs can boast about what kind of fan support they get throughout the year like we can.”
On Jonas Aidoo’s offensive development
“I tell Jonas all the time he’s so much better than he gives himself credit for. I thought tonight he’s settled early and in the second half, I thought he got physical.Jonas is more physical than you might think and he can shoot the ball. I think what he’ll continue to learn and what we need — (from) everyone — the word I keep talking about is consistency. It’s hard when teams are inviting you to shoot it when you know you can shoot it, but yet there’s sometimes when you have to turn that down and go get to the foul line. I think Jonas should be a great free throw shooter. And I do know our guys have gotten better in the last two weeks looking to get the ball inside. That I do know. We need it to go in there.
“I thought Tobe, he had one tough shot in the first half that he shouldn’t have shot. He didn’t have his balance. But we need he and Jonas to give us something in there. And it’s not just, I mean, sometimes we need to throw it in there, but it’s all getting the ball inside, like I said earlier, cutting, driving it. We’ve gotta play inside out and we need Jonas and Tobe to give us — Dalton does some but in a different way. Jahmai did it today. Great job on his part coming down the lane late and playing off two feet and turning it into a post-up game. We just need to control that paint area as much as we can.”