Dan Fleser: Vols Emerge From The Mud With Sweet 16 Berth

  • Sunday, March 19, 2023
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

After all his pretty turnaround mid-range jumpers and clutch 3-pointers, Olivier Nkamhoua had one final scoring statement to make Saturday afternoon and it was as loud as it was fitting.

Tennessee’s senior forward soared to throw down a putback dunk with 1 minute, 15 seconds left of a second-round NCAA basketball tournament game against Duke. The thunderous basket was a highlight of Nkamhoua’s career-tying-best 27-point performance. The moment also summed up best the nature of the Vols’ 65-52 victory in Orlando, Fla., which pointed them toward New York City next weekend and the Sweet 16 round of the East Region.

“What we were saying before the game the whole time is we were going to bring them into the mud with us and make them play a tough, hard-nosed game and see if they were ready for it,” Khamhoua said.

The reference was to Duke’s four freshmen starters. UT’s strategy started poorly with Uros Plavsic overdoing things and picking two quick fouls.

“I didn’t like any part of that,” UT coach Rick Barnes said. “(Uros) gets too emotional about it. We want to play within the rules in terms of – as physical as we want to be, we don’t want to foul.”

There was no foul called a short while later when UT’s Jonas Aidoo and Duke freshman 7-footer Kyle Filipowski went airborne to grapple for a rebound. But there was blood. Filipowski suffered a gash under his right eye and needed a cut man to repair the damage.

Other than playing Purdue, which was the Region’s No. 1 seed before being upset Friday night, Filipowski said UT was the most physical team the Blue Devils faced all season.

“That’s no hit on any of the other teams,” he said. “That was just saying how physical Tennessee was today.”

Even after Tennessee had established its preferred tone, the Vols still had to, in Nkamhoua’s words, “figure it out on the offensive end.” Both elements were necessary to overcome the Blue Devils, who, youth notwithstanding, had won 10 consecutive games. And boy did Nkamhoua figure it out. He scored 23 points in the second half, including 13 in a row during one pivotal stretch, when a shaky four-point advantage grew to 11 with 4:17 left.

After two subsequent free throws by teammate Jahmai Mashack, then came the dunk, a dagger of a basket disguised as a sledgehammer.

“I had fresh legs,” said Nkamhoua, whose minutes were limited by two fouls before halftime. “I feel like that gave me a little bit of extra edge. I was probably the only guy on the floor with fresh legs, so . . .

So, the rest is UT history, achieved by a team without its injured starting point guard (Zakai Zeigler), a team that struggled to survive the first round versus Louisiana, a team that was 5-7 in its previous 12 games. Nkamhoua and the Vols got down in the March mud and emerged with one of the greatest victories in the program’s tournament annals. Perhaps only the Sweet 16 victory over Ohio State in 2010 outranks it.

Oh, the wonder of this tournament.

Said Barnes: “I’ll tell you what, no team deserves more than what’s happened, what these guys have gone out and earned this week. And I’m just so proud.”

* * *

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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