Tennessee’s basketball teams took part Wednesday in the inaugural ACC/SEC challenge, which pits teams from the respective conferences against each other.
The initial experience was an overwhelming challenge for both the Vols and Lady Vols. Therefore, it was tough for their fans as well. And they got an eyeful. The TV schedule arranged the games concurrently with the Lady Vols playing Notre Dame at Thompson-Boling Arena at 5 p.m. The Vols followed against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., at 7:15 p.m.
The Lady Vols began the double feature by squandering a 16-point advantage in the final 17 minutes after two of the program’s traditional strengths failed them. The prospects of a second consecutive victory over a ranked foe instead deteriorated into a 74-69 loss.
The Vols, meanwhile, flipped the order of their anguish. They surrendered 61 points in the first half, the most in a half since 2006. A valiant rally cut a 24-point deficit to six after halftime before being punctuated by an ankle injury suffered by Dalton Knecht. The 100-92 loss was the Vols’ third consecutive setback to a team that enhanced its stature at the expense of theirs.
Here’s a few thoughts and observations regarding both games:
-Knecht’s injury tops any other concern associated with Wednesday’s results. His left foot rolled over after he stepped on the foot of Carolina’s Seth Trimble. Knecht had to be helped to the team bench.
“It looked like he got it pretty good,” Coach Rick Barnes said.
Before the injury, Knecht had scored 37 points, the most by a visiting player at the Dean Dome in 35 years. The transfer forward shot 13 for 17 from the floor. For the season, he’s averaging 20 points per game, nine points more than any other Vol.
-The Lady Vols were outscored from close range 52-26 and were outrebounded 41-33 by Notre Dame, which had a 15-6 edge in second-chance points. The Fighting Irish also shot 58 percent from the floor in the second half.
Along with rebounding and defense, what seemingly has become another program staple – turnovers – also conspired against the Lady Vols. The Fighting Irish converted 17 of them into 17 points.
“I thought we got passive, and we don’t play well passive,” coach Kellie Harper said. “I think when we’re more aggressive, we take care of the basketball a little better.”
-Before Knecht’s injury, the Vols’ comeback also was thwarted by shortening the bench. Fatigue caught up with them before they could catch Carolina. Veteran guard Santiago Vescovi, who was scoreless in the first half, was conspicuously absent in the second half until the game’s final minutes.
“We can’t score 92 points and him not have a point,” Barnes said. “I mean, we gotta know what we’re gonna get.”
-The Vols presumably will get better defensively. But they won’t get bigger and that’s a problem. Carolina’s 6-foot-11 Armando Bacot had 22 points and 11 rebounds. Bacot, Kansas’ Hunter Dickinson and Purdue’s Zach Edey combined to average 20.6 points and 13.6 rebounds versus the Vols.
-Along with missing leading scorer Rickea Jackson for a fifth consecutive game with a lower leg injury, the Lady Vols played without center Tamari Key and transfer wing Avery Strickland (concussion protocol). Notre Dame was missing three players, including star guard Olivia Miles.
In watching and assessing the Lady Vols in their depleted state, my thoughts often distill to a single question: What do they do well consistently? Until Wednesday, they were plus-14 on the boards, which was a concern at the season’s start. Of course, Jackson had gathered 24 rebounds in her two games.
It didn’t help on Wednesday that they essentially played without post Jillian Hollingshead, too. She had one point and four rebounds in nearly 18 playing minutes.
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at email@example.com.