By Jimmy Hyams
Tennessee refused to lose Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols refused to lose to a hot and healthy Arkansas team.
The Vols refused to lose on Senior Night.
And the Vols refused to lose after point guard Zakai Ziegler went down with an apparent knee injury three minutes into the game.
Tennessee was already inspired to play. But it appeared UT took the energy and emotion to another level when Ziegler, one of the team’s most popular players, collapsed and was slow to get up, a clear indication to coach Rick Barnes that this was serious business.
Despite losing the SEC’s assist leader in SEC games only, Tennessee stormed past Arkansas 75-57 with an effort and intensity that had the sellout crowd rising to its feet multiple times in appreciation.
“They didn’t flinch,’’ Barnes said of his team (22-8, 11-6) which kept alive hopes to being the No. 4 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament and earning a coveted double bye.
“It was a gutty performance by our guys. … I don’t think at any time we stopped believing.’’
Barnes, who’s had to adjust his lineup and rotation quite a few times due to injuries, had to alter the game plan early without Ziegler. Barnes used three different point guards to run the offense: Jahmai Mashack, Santi Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James.
James hadn’t run the point in four years. Vescovi has seen spot duty at the position. Mashack, who played some point guard in high school, had never served in that role at Tennessee.
Mashack said the UT huddle was a “little bit quiet’’ after the Ziegler injury “because he’s one of our guys, he’s one of our brothers.’’
But that didn’t cause the Vols to lose focus against an Arkansas team (19-11, 8-9) that had won seven of 10 SEC games and lost at No. 2 Alabama by three points on Saturday.
“We didn’t have time to sulk and be upset,’’ Mashack said. “It’s basketball. We have to learn to adjust.’’
Barnes praised his team’s maturity for handling the adversity.
“We felt like we could find a way,’’ Barnes said.
Tennessee did just that. Tennessee shot 50% from the field, recorded 11 steals, managed 42 points in the point and had a stellar 18-to-10 assist-to-turnover ratio. The Vols also had eight offensive rebounds in the first half and they were quicker to loose balls than the Hogs.
“We’ve always been the kind of team that when one of us goes down, somebody is ready to step up,’’ said senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua, who had a game-high 16 points to go with seven rebounds.
“There’s no room to feel sorry for ourselves or feel down. There’s no room to feel like we can’t do it anymore because we lost somebody.’’
Tennessee led 17-15 some 12 minutes into the game but stretched the lead to 24-15 with a 7-0 run and took a 34-25 lead into halftime despite shooting just 43.3% from the field and 1-of-8 from 3-point range.
UT came out firing in the second half, hitting 58.4% and stretched the lead to 24 with 3:30 left in the game.
As long as Iowa didn’t show up (re: Michigan State rally), the Vols were home free.
Barnes said he visited with Ziegler at halftime and the sophomore from New York was in tears.
“He was crying,’’ Barnes said. “He was hurt.’’
If Ziegler is out for an extended period of time – or even the season – Barnes said the Vols would handle the point “do it by committee.’’
Mashack said UT would miss Ziegler’s shooting and assists but losing his energy is “irreplaceable.’’
Mashack said it would be incumbent upon him to bring more energy.
Nkamhoua is confident Mashack can provide the energy and Vesvoci and James can provide the point guard play.
“We have the ability to figure it out,’’ Nkamhoua said. “We have everything we need to make things happen.’’
They certainly did against Arkansas.
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