Santiago Vescovi had been in a shooting slump the past two games.
The sophomore guard hit only five of 15 shots in a loss to Alabama, and he was one of seven against Arkansas as the Vols clung to a late lead Wednesday night.
But with the game in the balance, Vols coach Rick Barnes didn’t care what Vescovi had shot from the field.
He cared what Vescovi shot from the foul line.
That’s why Barnes designed a play for Vescovi to get the ball in the final 15 seconds against Arkansas.
Vescovi caught the in-bounds pass, was fouled with 14.1 seconds left, then calmly sank two free throws to give Tennessee a 3-point lead en route to a 5-point win.
Vescovi is now an impressive 25 of 26 from the foul line in the final four minutes or overtime during his UT career.
“Absolutely, 100 percent,’’ UT associate head coach Mike Schwartz said of UT’s confidence in Vescovi at the foul line late, even if he is struggling from the field.
Schwartz said UT has confidence Vescovi will “make the right play, make big plays, make big shots, make the right decision’’ at key moments. “We absolutely have confidence in him and we were glad he was at the line.’’
Vescovi wasn’t the only Vol to come through at the free throw line against Arkansas.
True freshman Keon Johnson was making 58.3% of his free throws on the season when Arkansas decided to put the unproven guard on the line.
Johnson responded, making six of six in the final 1:46 to help the Vols put away the game.
“It says a lot,’’ Schwartz said. “He’s spent a lot of time in the gym. … He knows that he needs to become a better shooter, a better free throw shooter. … He wanted the ball and he wanted to be at the free throw line.’’
Schwartz said players need to look in the mirror and say “I need to be better here’’ and Johnson has down that.
Blocks, steals make the difference
Schwartz felt Tennessee played one of its worst defensive games of the season in the close win against Arkansas.
He pointed to two numbers that bailed out the Vols: 10 steals, nine blocks. That’s a combined 19, compared to a total of four for Arkansas.
“That stat is really important,’’ Schwartz said. “… That was the difference on defense.’’
Schwartz said UT also had 29 deflections – a really high total.
UT defensively has forced eight of nine opponents to turn the ball over on at least 20% of their possessions.
Also, Tennessee leads the nation by blocking 18% of an opponent’s 2-point field goal attempts.
Schwartz said some of the blocks and steals are “fix it plays where guys are making up deficits, making up for errors where we didn’t do our job schematically. Those plays were really big for us and really was the only highlights of our defense that night.’’
SEC road woes
SEC teams have won about 50% o their games on the road – including Tennessee’s 20-point win at Missouri Dec. 30.
Schwartz said he thinks that has a lot to do with smaller crowds due to the pandemic.
“You can never underestimate what a home crowd is,’’ Schwartz said. “We have the best one in the country,’’ Schwartz said. “You can’t even come close to trying to fathom the impact of no crowd. Momentum is such a big thing in sports and it takes such a short span to change momentum.
“Our crowds at Thompson-Boling have won us many games.’’
Tennessee has already lost a home SEC game, falling to Alabama last Saturday.
Tennessee visits Texas A&M Saturday at 2 pm