Vols end 2023 with win over Tarleton State

Published 1:14 pm Friday, December 22, 2023

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The University of Tennessee men’s basketball team concluded the calendar year by defeating Tarleton State, 65-46, Thursday night at Food City Center.

Junior guard Zakai Zeigler paced No. 8/7 Tennessee (9-3) with a game-high 13 points in a contest it trailed for just 35 seconds on its way to completing a perfect record in December.

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Tarleton State (8-4, 2-0 WAC) scored 12 of the first 22 points in the opening nine minutes, but the Volunteers quickly answered to take control of the game. They went on a 15-2 run—including both a trio of 3-pointers and four straight made field goals—in under five minutes to go ahead by 11, 25-14, with 6:03 left on the first-half clock.

Tennessee built a 14-point edge, 39-25, by the time the halftime horn sounded, as it scored the last seven points of the session. The home team shot 51.9 percent (14-of-27) from the field in opening session, including 54.5 percent (6-of-11) beyond the arc, while holding the Texans to 33.3 percent (9-of-27) and 14.3 percent (1-of-7) respective clips at the other end.

Neither team scored in the first three-and-a-half minutes of the second frame, as Tennessee missed its first six field goals and Tarleton missed its first five. After a basket by the Texans, fifth-year guard Santiago Vescovi hit a 3-pointer with 16:12 left to give the Volunteers a then-game-best 15-point edge, 42-27, with 16:12 to go.

Tarleton State chipped away from there and trimmed the deficit to six multiple times, including to 50-44 with 5:45 remaining. The Volunteers, though, responded shortly thereafter with eight straight points in just 84 seconds to grab a 14-point cushion, 58-44, with 3:03 to go.

That surge sparked a 15-2 run to end the affair, as Tennessee finished the night with a game-high 19-point lead, 65-46. The Volunteers went 9-of-10 from the free-throw line over the final three-and-a-half minutes, as Zeigler made all four of his attempts and sophomore forward Tobe Awaka went 5-of-6.

Zeigler’s 13 points came on a 4-of-8 mark from the field and he added a co-game-best five assists with just one turnover. Vescovi scored 12 points, grabbed seven rebounds and matched Zeigler’s assist total to tie his season best.

Fifth-year guard Josiah-Jordan James totaled 10 points and a game-leading 10 rebounds to notch his second double-double of the season. Awaka, meanwhile, registered a career-best five blocks to equal the total of every other player in the game combined.

Sophomore guard Devon Barnes paced Tarleton State with 12 points, but Tennessee held him to 4-of-15 shooting overall and a 1-of-7 mark beyond the arc. Senior forward KiAndre Gaddy and senior guard Lue Williams posted 10 points apiece in the setback. The Volunteers limited the Texans’ leading scorer, senior forward Jakorie Smith, to six points on a 2-of-11 field-goal mark.

The Volunteers’ strong defense conceded just a 30.0 percent (18-of-60) clip from the floor on the evening, including a 9.1 percent (2-of-22) ledger on 3-pointers. It marked the third time in at least the last 14 seasons Tennessee—which also had a 15-2 advantage in points off turnovers and a 17-4 margin in bench points—held its foe to 30 percent or below from the field and 10 percent or worse from deep.

Tennessee now has 11 days without a game before returning to action Jan. 2 at 7 p.m. for its non-conference finale, live on SEC Network from Food City Center, against Norfolk State.