KNOXVILLE – It would have been relatively easy for the Tennessee basketball team to have a letdown performance on Tuesday night following a hard-fought loss to Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.
The Vols were once again without Josiah-Jordan James for the fourth straight game, and John Fulkerson was battling illness throughout the whole game, forcing the Vols to rely on freshmen Davonte Gaines and Olivier Nkamhoua.
Naturally, the Vols played one of their best games of the season.
Led by a trio of freshmen, Tennessee led by 17 at the half and never looked back, taking down the Razorbacks 82-61 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“Today, I felt like we were able to execute our offense a little better than we have in the past,” Nkamhoua said. “Ticket (Davonte Gaines) came off the bench with great energy and our guards were handling the ball well and able to run our stuff. When we execute, we’re at our best.”
While Jordan Bowden had 16 points and John Fulkerson had 14 points, it was the play of Nkamhoua, Gaines and Santiago Vescovi that made the difference.
Vescovi led the team with 20 points, a career high, and had eight assists, also a career high. Vescvoi continues to entertain the Tennessee crowd with his long three-point shots and dazzling behind the back and no look passes. Three times in the game, Vescovi fed Yves Pons with no-look passes for easy dunks.
More importantly for the Vols, Vescovi has cut down his turnover total. After turning the ball over 21 times in his first three games, Vescovi has turned the ball over 21 times total in his last nine games. He’s had 38 assists over that nine-game span as well.
“The last couple of games, he’s done a good job of taking care of the ball,” Barnes said. “He’s fun to watch. You just realize he has a good feel for the game. He sees things a step ahead of what some guys do.”
After playing two minutes on Saturday, Nkamhoua was called off the bench just two minutes into the game on Tuesday night with Fulkerson battling the flu. Nkamhoua, played 19 minutes, tying his career high in points with 10. He also had six rebounds and a plus/minus of 10.
With Uros Plavsic still struggling to adjust to the college game, he played just four minutes and had no points, Nkhamhoua was a sight for sore eyes with his defensive and rebounding ability on the Arkansas big men.
“In the past, I’ve had my good and bad day, and I’ve just tried to learn from that,” Nkamhoua said. “I just need to be more solid everyday and be the player our team needs.”
While totaling just six points, Gaines production came on the defensive end. Gaines had a tall task entering the game going up against Mason Jones, the leading scorer in the SEC. Last week against Auburn, Jones had 40 points and has scored over 30 in three of the last five games.
Gaines, who was giving up almost 40 pounds, shut down Jones on Tuesday night, holding him to 1-of-10 shooting and nine points. Gaines had seven rebounds as well and three steals.
“He’s done this (brought energy) four games in-a-row now,” Gaines said. “He was flying around and seeing if he could make things happen.”
With the win, Tennessee improves to 14-10 on the season and 6-5 in SEC play. Pons added 12 points in the game with some easy dunks. The Vols shot 49 percent from the field and were 24-30 from the free throw line.
Along with the offensive production, the Tennessee defense did their part as well.
The Vols held Arkansas scoreless for five minutes in the first half and held them to 61 points, their lowest total of the season.
After giving up 77 and 88 points in their last two losses, the UT defense seemed back to normal, forcing 14 turnovers and totaling seven steals and six blocks.
Tennessee will be back in action on Saturday as they travel to South Carolina. The Vols beat the Gamecocks 56-53 earlier in the year. Saturday’s game tips at 6 p.m.
“To be honest, we’re desperate,” Nkahmoua said. “Every game is big. Every game has been big for awhile now. We’re finding a groove I feel like, and we just have to keep pushing in the right direction.”