Dan Fleser: When Vescovi Ended Game's Field Goal Drought, Vols Were Headed For Win Over Auburn

  • Saturday, February 4, 2023
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

Bert Bertelkamp removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. The image of the Tennessee men’s basketball radio analyst in that moment was worth a thousand words he might’ve used to describe Saturday’s SEC game against Auburn.

By that point, late in the second half, the Vols and Tigers seemingly had combined for a thousand missed shots. In that context, Santiago Vescovi’s jumper was a sight for sore eyes. The UT senior rose up behind teammate Tobe Awaka’s screen and nailed a 3-pointer with two minutes, 33 seconds left. Vescovi drew a foul on the landing and hit the subsequent free throw.

The four-point play was the difference in Tennessee’s 46-43 victory before a sellout crowd of 21,678 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

“You can feel it as a coach,” UT coach Rick Barnes said on his postgame radio show. “Sometimes you go through these periods when guys feel a little bit of doubt.”

For No. 2 Tennessee (19-4, 8-2 SEC) the latest period began with last Wednesday’s 67-54 loss at Florida, when the Vols shot 28 percent from the field. They were more off target against No. 25 Auburn (17-6, 7-3), shooting 27 percent (17 for 63).

Vescovi’s decisive 3-pointer was his lone trey of the game. Fellow guard Zakai Zeigler didn’t make any floor shot, going 0-for-7 from long range and 0-for-10 overall. Post player Olivier Nkamhoua was 4-for-16. Along with the doubt, the Tigers were playing some defense, too.

“Teams today do put an emphasis on defense,” Barnes said, “because, you know what, as coaches we don’t know that we can count on guys to score it night in and night out. So, we want to make sure we can get things done on the defensive end.”

Unlike Wednesday, the Vols’ defense was up to the challenge. They held Auburn to 23.6 percent shooting (13 for 55). They also gathered a crucial edge on the boards, converting 15 offensive rebounds into a 10-2 edge in second-chance points.

Veteran Josiah-Jordan James led UT with 15 points and 14 rebounds.

“If we can come with this defensive mind-set, we’re going to work our way through it on the offensive end,” Barnes said.

Some other thoughts and observations:

-The refs let ’em play down the stretch. Nothing was called when the Tigers’ press swarmed Vescovi and forced a turnover with 23.8 seconds left. Tennessee’s Khamhoua also wasn’t whistled for his defense on a final 3-point attempt by Auburn guard Wendell Green Jr., who went down after the shot in similar fashion to Vescovi earlier.

The Vols’ eschewed fouling before Green’s shot because, as Barnes said: “It doesn’t always come down to the players in one of those situations.”

In this case, it did.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl followed the officiating crew off the court afterward, complaining about a no-call. Green took his beef to Twitter, saying: “I respect all referees just like I respect all people . . . But What could you possibly have been looking at?”

-The nature of Saturday’s game also was a product of both teams’ familiarity with each other.

“I know that we know everything they’re going to run, all their play calls, and vice versa,” James said. “Every time we call a play, their bench, their assistant coaches are calling it out. So, it comes down to Coach is always preaching it’s a players’ game. That’s when you just go out there and hoop.”   



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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