In their second Southeastern Conference matchup, No. 8 Tennessee will look to turn in a much better performance against a Mississippi-based program than they did last week in their conference opener.
The Volunteers will welcome Mississippi State in for the SEC contest Tuesday night in Knoxville, Tenn.
The two squads are trending in different directions following their last two outings.
Tennessee (11-2, 1-0 SEC) had a difficult time its last time out but has won two straight after losing at then-No. 9 Arizona on Dec. 17.
Coach Rick Barnes’ group had its hands full at Ole Miss on Wednesday in its final game of 2022, but a pair of leaders from last year’s SEC Tournament championship team came to the rescue.
After trailing by 10 in the first half and down 34-28 at the break to the Rebels, the visitors edged ahead late and converted important free throws to avoid a disastrous loss as a seven-point road favorite.
Guards Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler combined to sink six free throws in the final 69 seconds as the Volunteers left with a 63-59 victory and a winning start in the conference.
A native of Montevideo, Uruguay, Vescovi said the win was mainly due to a strong second-half defensive showing.
“Everybody is willing to put their bodies on the line and leave everything on the court,” said Vescovi, whose 22 points was one off his career high. “That gives us a great advantage.”
With some of the SEC teams losing nonconference outings right before the holiday break, including Mississippi State, Barnes said winning on the road will be tougher than ever as teams try to sharpen their play.
“It’s going to be a grind every night,” said the eighth-year Volunteers coach.
Against Tennessee, the Bulldogs (11-2, 0-1) are 44-88 overall and 11-47 at Rocky Top. They own a three-game losing streak against the Volunteers and have won only twice in their past 11 matchups.
Undefeated through its first 11 games, Mississippi State has dropped two straight — 58-52 to Drake in Lincoln, Neb., and 78-67 to No. 8 Alabama in its SEC opener on Wednesday.
Coach Chris Jans’ team — built on strong defense but having to work hard on the offensive end — managed to tie a season high with nine 3-pointers Wednesday against the Crimson Tide, but the free-throw shooting was woeful.
The Bulldogs went to the stripe 36 times, but in a contest when they needed to take advantage of every scoring chance against a top 10 team, they sank only 18 of them.
Leading scorer Tolu Smith (14.8 points per game) had improved greatly at the line over the past seven games by going 37-for-54 (68.5 percent), but the 6-foot-11 senior missed 12 of 15 freebies.
“He’s going to get fouled a lot because of his game. I’m not sure what happened tonight … some anxiety, some anxiousness, certainly lost some confidence,” Jans said. “It just becomes contagious. You can feel the crowd even like ‘Oh my gosh.’
“But it’s not the reason we lost the game. We had other areas we needed to do better at, but it was an issue for us.”
The teams will waste little time before a rematch. They will play again in two weeks, meeting on Jan. 17 in Starkville, Miss.
–Field Level Media