From the veteran’s wing of its roster, Tennessee convened a we’re-not-losing squad against Alabama.

In UT coach Rick Barnes’ system, every player – young and old - clocks in with this sort of competitiveness in mind. However, some Vols are clearly more suited than others for the dirty work involved. And Saturday night’s high-stakes road game demanded those Vols first build a fire wall against defeat before a chance to win got consumed.

Jahmai Mashack, Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi got good and grimy against the Crimson Tide. They summoned virtually all their basketball assets – physical and mental – and channeled them into being bulwarks. In doing so, the Vols – after missing 10 consecutive field goal attempts in the second half – somehow made their way back from a seven-point deficit to an 81-74 victory and first place alone in the SEC standings.

“Our older guys were the ones,” Barnes said, “guys that have been in those types of situations, they were the ones that really stayed in there with us and helped us win at the end.”

In some cases, personal statistics weren’t an adequate measure of the trio’s contributions. Mashack, for example, had eight points, six rebounds and four assists. A better measure of the 6-foot-4 junior’s impact was Alabama shooting 3-for-23 from the floor over the game’s final 14 minutes and making just two 3-pointers in the second half.

Mashack’s athleticism enabled him to contest Alabama’s perimeter scorers. He also raced back like a football free safety to leap for a lead pass and create a turnover. The latter play occurred seconds after a Mashack trey had regained the lead for good with 6:09 left.

After a loss at Texas A&M, Mashack had lobbied to resume the responsibility he performed so capably Saturday against one of the nation’s best offenses.

“When we went out there and lost, he didn’t play because at the time we were substituting him and Josiah at the four and he hadn’t gone with the big lineup,” Barnes said. “He said, ‘Coach you got to give me a chance to guard guards. You gotta give me a chance.’ Since that time, I have. I have told the (assistant) coaches what was I thinking getting away from him doing that because he’s elite at it. He embraces it.”

The personal stats were kinder regarding James, who gathered a team-high 13 rebounds. Vescovi, meanwhile, led the team in steals with 3.

The sum of their work covered for teammate Dalton Knecht, the chairman of the board for the team's scoring. Again, this work is open to all Vols. Point guard Zakai Zeigler, who scored a team-high 18 on Saturday, and center Jonas Aidoo, who's second on the team in per-game average, have had their share of moments. But nobody can hit the Sinatra notes like Knecht. He’s reached 39 points twice, including just last Wednesday against Auburn.

Knecht couldn’t get there against Alabama. The combination of the Crimson Tide occasionally running an extra defender at him and foul trouble helped limit him to 13 points, his second-lowest total in SEC play.

And the Vols still saw their way to victory.

“They’ve put together a tough, veteran group that figures out how to win games,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said, “and they’ve been winning some tough games.”

On this night, the figuring involved not losing first.     


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