Volunteers down No. 20 Illinois

Published 3:43 pm Monday, December 11, 2023

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The University of Tennessee men’s basketball team turned a five-point second-half deficit into a 12-point lead en route to an 86-79 victory over No. 20 Illinois in a top-20 showdown Saturday afternoon at Food City Center.

Fifth-year guard Dalton Knecht scored 21 points, including 13 after halftime, to pace a quintet of double-digit scorers for No. 17 Tennessee (6-3) in front of a sold-out crowd.

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“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,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “We rebounded the ball against an outstanding rebounding team. They really are relentless and … it’s a nice win against a team that’s going to win a lot of basketball games this year and they’re as good as anybody that we’ve played up to this point. Really great effort from our guys.”

Despite a trio of early 3-pointers by Illinois (7-2, 1-0 B1G) the Volunteers earned an eight-point lead, 23-15, after just under eight minutes of play. The Fighting Illini, though, roared back to take a 31-30 edge—the go-ahead shot was the third made 3-pointer for graduate guard/forward Quincy Guerrier, eclipsing his prior season total—with 4:33 left in the frame.

Although Tennessee regained the advantage, Illinois hit its sixth 3-pointer of the half with 20 ticks left to take a two-point lead, 36-34, at the break. The Volunteers held the visitors to 11-of-32 (34.4 percent) shooting, including makes on just three of their final 14 attempts, and had four times as many assists (12-3), but Illinois was 8-of-10 from the stripe compared to Tennessee’s 3-of-4 ledger.

The Fighting Illini scored the first three points of the second half, making it a 14-4 run dating back to the final seven-and-a-half minutes of the opening frame to take a game-best five-point edge, 39-34, with 18:29 left.

The Volunteers reclaimed the lead on a fast-break dunk by fifth-year guard Josiah-Jordan James after a midcourt steal and assist by junior guard Zakai Zeigler. Knecht then scored the next five points to make it a 10-0 surge in 2:34 and put Tennessee up by six, 50-44, with 13:43 to go. The burst eventually extended to 18-5, as a 3-pointer by junior guard Jordan Gainey upped the cushion to a then-game-best nine, 58-49, with 11:14 on the clock.

Tennessee extended its advantage as high as 12 on multiple occasions, the first time at 69-57 with 7:04 showing, making it a 29-13 extended spurt. Illinois twice trimmed the margin to five in the final minutes, but got no closer. The Volunteers went 15-of-19 from the line in the final six minutes, including 11-of-12 in the last two-and-a-half, tacking on points despite taking only three field goals—one went in—in the last seven minutes.

Junior forward Jonas Aidoo (14), James (12), fifth-year guard Santiago Vescovi (12) and Zeigler (11) all joined Knecht in double figures. It marked the first time this season five Volunteers reached that mark in the scoring column.

Aidoo went 6-of-12 and added seven rebounds, while James amassed a career-best seven assists to eclipse the career-best mark of six he matched just four days ago and tie for the most by a Volunteer this season. Vescovi, before fouling out with 77 seconds on the clock, finished one rebound shy of a double-double with a game-high nine boards and Zeigler, whose point total was a season high, dished out four assists with no turnovers.

Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr., finished with 22 points, going 5-of-16 from the floor and a perfect 11-of-11 at the stripe. Nine of his points came in the final two minutes.

Guerrier matched Shannon with 22 points of his own, shooting 7-of-14 from the floor and 3-of-8 beyond the line. Senior forward Coleman Hawkins notched 12 points, but the Volunteers held him to a 4-of-13 clip, including a 3-of-10 mark from deep.