Oxford, MS – Lockdown defense in the second half and an explosive offensive effort from Santiago Vescovi proved to be the difference Wednesday, as No. 7 Tennessee men’s basketball team escaped with a win at Ole Miss Wednesday in its SEC opener, 63-59.
The Volunteers (11-2, 1-0 SEC) fell behind by as many as 10 points in the first half and trailed for nearly 22 minutes of game time but were able to secure their first true road win of the season and begin conference play in the win column.
It marks the second straight season in which Tennessee has erased a double-figure deficit to come from behind and defeat the Rebels. Last season in Knoxville, the UT Vols came back from down 12 to defeat Ole Miss in overtime, 66-60.
Vescovi led the way offensively for Tennessee this time around with a season-high 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting—his eighth career 20-point game and second this season. Vescovi also converted five 2-point field goals—surpassing his previous season-high of two.
Jonas Aidoo had a standout performance on the boards for Tennessee with a career-high 13 rebounds—six offensive—and eight points in a career-high 29 minutes.
Zakai Zeigler was the second Vol in double figures Wednesday, shooting just 2-for-9 from the field but chipping in 13 points—thanks to a 9-for-10 performance at the free-throw line.
Defensively, Tennessee held Ole Miss’ leading scorer—Matthew Murrell, who entered Wednesday averaging 15.6 points per game—to just five points on 1-for-11 shooting. Murrell was defended primarily by UT sophomore Jahmai Mashack, who finished the game as a team-high +12 in 22 impactful minutes.
As a team, Ole Miss shot just 28 percent in the second half, compared to 46 percent in the first half.
After the Vols trailed by six points at halftime and had played from behind for almost the entirety of the first half, Tennessee’s defense put on the clamps coming out of the break—forcing Ole Miss to misfire on seven of its first eight field goal attempts of the period.
The Vols’ shutdown defense allowed the offense to catch up on the scoreboard, as Tennessee outscored Ole Miss 8-2 in the opening 6:16 of the second half to knot the score up at 36.
Tennessee and Ole Miss traded blows for the next two minutes of game time until the Vols rattled off a 12-2 run—kickstarted by a pair of baskets from Olivier Nkamhoua and capped off by a dunk from Aidoo—that gave the Vols a 52-45 lead.
The Vols didn’t relinquish the lead for the final 10:24. Ole Miss briefly cut the lead to one point after back-to-back threes from Jaemyn Brakefield, but Aidoo answered with an offensive rebound and dunk to restore Tennessee’s cushion.
Zeigler and Vescovi hit a combined six free throws in the final 1:09 to ice the win for the Vols.
In the first half, Tennessee trailed by as many as 10 points and faced a 34-28 deficit heading into the halftime break.
The Vols and Rebels played back and forth for the opening 10 minutes of the game with neither team leading by more than four points until a 10-2 Ole Miss run gave the Rebels a 27-17 lead.
Tennessee cut that lead down to as few as four points before halftime on a deep three from Vescovi with 3:34 left in the first half, but did not score for the remainder of the first half and went into the locker room trailing by six points.
Vescovi had 10 points in the first half for Tennessee, while no other Vol scored more than four points during the opening stanza.
Next Up For UT Men’s Basketball
The Tennessee Vols basketball team takes a one-week break from competition before taking on Mississippi State in its SEC home opener on Tuesday, January 3rd. Tipoff is set for 6:00pm CT on ESPN2.