Tennessee – 70
Ole Miss – 55
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Vols were in the capital of The Volunteer State for the SEC Basketball Tournament looking to defend its championship it won last year in Tampa. Their opponent was Ole Miss who had earned the right to be there by beating South Carolina in round one. The last time Tennessee was in Bridgestone Arena it didn’t go the way they wanted against Colorado. This time, the Vols would need a much better performance to move on to the quarterfinals.
Tennessee started the game off well shooting 4-5 from the floor with three of those four makes coming from deep. Josiah-Jordan James looked the healthiest he had been since his return as he made the first shot of the game with a three and the Vols seemed to be clicking on offense. The only problem was Ole Miss had an answer for everything early on and not for a lack of good defense by the Vols. The Rebels started off 4-4 from three and Tennessee’s early offensive success only amounted to a 13-13 tie after we had played five minutes in the Music City.
The question was going to be how long Ole Miss could keep up in their second game in 24 hours. In tournament basketball, if you let that team hang around as the higher seed the fatigue factor can become inconsequential as belief builds, but if you can take the wind out of the sails quickly then it can become a weakness to exploit. One way you let teams hang around is turnovers and mistakes and those began to mount for the Vols as the ball-handling duties were spread between new players with Zakai Ziegler out for the season. With both teams tied at 27 with 6:30 to go in the first half would Tennessee be able to establish some sort of lead before the break? JJJ answered that question as the Vols ramped up their defense and James finished the half at the buzzer the way he started it with a three and Tennessee took a 39-33 lead into the locker room.
James started off the second half with 2 free throws and another three for the first 5 points, continuing what had been a great game for him. Ole Miss went cold on the offensive side of the floor and by the 15:00 mark Tennessee had built up an 11 point lead. Turnovers began to hurt the Vols again as the Rebels chipped away at the Volunteer lead but a huge three from Tyreke Key, who had been struggling as of late, shifted the momentum back for the Vols. With 10:00 to play Tennessee led 57-48.
Rick Barnes took a time-out as we reached the four-minute mark with Tennessee leading 64-52. The Vols were going to have to avoid the turnovers that had plagued them throughout the game to close out the Rebels. With one minute left, the Tennessee fans in Bridgestone Arena began to stand and salute as their Vols had jumped out to a 68-55 lead and moved on to the next round with a final score of 70-55
Josiah-Jordan James led all scorers with 20 points. Myles Burns led Ole Miss with 14. James led all players in rebounds as well with seven, and Jaemyn Brakefield led the Rebels with five. Olivier Nkamhoua and Matthew Murrell tied for the lead in assists with four each.
This is what Tennessee Head Coach, Rick Barnes, had to say post-game via Ben McKee of Govols247:
“Congratulations to Ole Miss for the job they’ve done the last couple weeks this season with the transition that happened there. I thought that staff did a terrific job of keeping those guys playing hard and connected, playing good basketball. The start of this game they were relaxed and really making some shots. We got a little bit slow getting going. But I thought the second half we were able to pick our intensity up a little bit on the defensive end. We turned it over too much. We’ve got to take care of the ball better. Overall, good first time out here in the tournament.”
Tennessee’s next game will be on Friday, 25 minutes after the Alabama and Mississippi State game is over, in Nashville, in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
Tennessee plays Missouri at 2pm on Friday, March 10th. Watch it on ESPN.