Vols’ rally falls short at Mississippi State

Published 1:27 pm Thursday, January 11, 2024

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The University of Tennessee men’s basketball team stormed back from a 15-point deficit, including a 14-point margin with under 17 minutes to go, to thrice tie the score down the stretch Wednesday night at Mississippi State, but could not claim the victory.

Fifth-ranked Tennessee (11-4, 1-1 SEC) got 26-plus points from both fifth-year guard Dalton Knecht and junior guard Zakai Zeigler in the 77-72 setback at Humphrey Coliseum in the team’s conference road opener.

After Mississippi State (11-3, 1-0 SEC) took a 16-11 lead midway through the first half, the Volunteers scored the next three points to pull within two. The home team then began to pull away, using an 8-0 run in 1:24 to go up by 10, 24-14, with 6:11 on the clock.

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The Bulldogs later used a 7-0 surge in 1:47 to push the margin to 15 points, 33-18, with 1:49 on the clock. At that point, they were shooting 50.0 percent from both the floor (12-of-24) and from beyond the arc (4-of-8), while Tennessee had respective 28.0 percent (7-of-25) and 15.4 percent (2-of-13) clips.

Mississippi State took a 13-point advantage, 35-22, into the locker room behind 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting from graduate student forward Tolu Smith III.

Early in the second half, Tennessee used aggressive, full-court defense to spark a 9-0 run that included back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers in just 36 seconds. The spurt cut the deficit all the way down to three, 49-46, with 13:52 to play. The Volunteers added another 3-pointer, making it a 5-of-7 stretch from deep including three by Knecht, to get the margin down to two, 51-49, with 11:36 on the clock.

The Bulldogs extended the lead back to seven, 62-55, with 6:42 left, but Tennessee countered with seven straight points in 1:15 to level the score at 62 with 5:17 to go. It marked the first tie since the score was 8-8 with 15:12 on the first-half timer.

Tennessee had multiple chances to take the lead, but went cold offensively and did not score for 2:56, as Mississippi State tallied six straight points to go ahead, 69-63, with 1:50 to play. The Volunteers, though, would not cave, scoring four points in 11 seconds to make it 71-69 with 1:17 left and went on to tie the score at 72 on a dunk by Knecht just 43 seconds later.

A three-point play by Smith gave the edge back to the Bulldogs, 75-72, with 14.7 seconds on the clock. They then got a stop at the other end and used a run-out dunk to make it a five-point final margin.

Knecht led all scorers with 28 points, registering 26 in the second half alone. The Thornton, Colo., native shot 9-of-13 after the break, including a 4-of-7 mark from 3-point range, to log his second session this season with over 20 points.

Zeigler, meanwhile, scored a career-best 26 points—eclipsing the prior mark of 24 he set in the same building—on 9-of-15 shooting, including a 4-of-9 ledger beyond the arc. The Long Island, N.Y., native, who set a career high in made field goals and went 4-of-5 at the stripe, also dished out seven assists and came away with three steals. He scored eight of the Volunteers’ first 10 points, including each of the first six, as well as six of their last nine.

Freshman guard Josh Hubbard scored a team-leading 25 points for Mississippi State, shooting 8-of-15 overall, 5-of-10 beyond the arc and 4-of-6 on free throws. Smith, a Preseason First Team All-SEC performer in his third game back from injury, added 23 points, finishing 7-of-10 from the field and 9-of-12 at the stripe. He also drew nine fouls in the victory.

Tennessee had a 22-10 advantage in fast-break points, but the Bulldogs, behind Hubbard’s performance, notched a 33-4 margin in bench points. The home team shot 50.0 percent in both halves, while Tennessee was over 23 percent better in the second frame than the first, logging an 18-of-32 (56.3 percent) figure in its comeback bid.

Up next for Tennessee is a trip to Athens, Georgia, where it plays Georgia, live on ESPN2 at noon from Stegeman Coliseum.