Dan Fleser: Focus On Vescovi, Zeigler In Vols Big Win Over Illinois

  • Sunday, December 10, 2023
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

Tennessee and Illinois went at it for nearly 2 ½ hours Saturday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena. In a basketball game with six ties, three lead changes and enough ebb and flow for three games, there was much to see and process. Here are two sequences worth savoring:

First sequence: About five minutes into the second half, Tennessee’s Zakai Zeigler went to the floor for a steal, wrestling the basketball away from Illinois’ Marcus Domask. From a prone position, Zeigler shoveled the ball to teammate Josiah-Jordan James, who streaked to the rim for a dunk.

The play drew a throaty response from the sellout crowd of 21,678. More importantly, the sequence converted a one-point deficit into a 45-44 lead. The Vols never trailed thereafter.

Second sequence: UT’s Santiago Vescovi grabbed a defensive rebound and took the initiative, pushing the ball up the court and finding a trailing Jahmai Mashack with a seeing-eye pass for a driving basket and a 10-point Tennessee advantage with 7 minutes, 35 seconds. The sequence gave Tennessee a huge leg up on the 86-79 victory, its first win over a ranked opponent in four tries this season.

Vescovi converted his urgency into satisfaction, a big smile lighting his face as he retreated past the scorer’s table.

These plays were snapshots of a Tennessee season in December and a team recovering from what’s already transpired while gathering itself for what lies ahead. Vescovi, who barely played in the second half against North Carolina just two games ago, logged 30 productive minutes against the No. 20 Illini. The graduate guard filled his stat line with 12 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two steals. His line was almost too full after he fouled out with 1:17 left. His brief absence emphasized his overall impact.

Former Villanova coach Jay Wright was there, working as a game analyst on the CBS broadcast. He said Vescovi’s play made Tennessee “a different team today.”

UT coach Rick Barnes later said Vescovi was a different man than he was earlier this season. The coach wasn’t referencing basketball, either.

“He’s had a tough semester,” Barnes said. “He lost his grandmother, that’s hard. But he would say it’s been hard academically because he’s serious about getting done what he wants to get done there.”

Regarding basketball, Barnes mentioned Vescovi in the context of the other veteran players and their knack for making “fix-it plays.” Since he’s now a junior, Zeigler qualifies as a veteran. He’s considered the heart-and-soul of the team for the sort of plays that change momentum and inspire teammates.

Zeigler started Saturday and played nearly 30 minutes. He scored 11 points and recorded four assists. He was six-for-six at the foul line, where UT held off Illinois’ final push.

Tennessee’s point guard suffered a torn ACL knee ligament at the end of last February. It’s easy to forget the serious injury when you watch Zeigler go to the court for a steal but it shouldn’t be, not yet.

“He’s getting closer,” Barnes said. “He’s still not totally there”

Zeigler is making his way through December, making progress as he goes. The Vols are trying to do the same.

* * *

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 danfleser3@gmail.com.

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