Olivier vs. Duke

University of Tennessee Volunteers basketball player Olivier Nkamhoua (13) attempts a three point shot during a NCAA tournament game against the Duke University Blue Devils at Amway Center, Orlando, Florida, Mar. 18, 2023.

Heading into the Vols Round of 32 matchup with basketball powerhouse Duke, it seemed that everybody saw Duke as the clear favorite and didn’t give the Vols a chance.

Besides, Tennessee entered the NCAA Tournament with a 5-7 record since the end of February, which were less than favorable conditions to make it out of the first weekend of March Madness. Basketball is a tournament sport that favors the team that is the hottest heading into said season.

In this case, Duke was the team that was hot, sporting a 10-game win streak and showed no signs of slowing down after winning the ACC Championship. The Blue Devils rolled their way through the first round with a 74-51 win over Oral Roberts while the Vols barely escaped Louisiana with a three-point victory.

What hasn’t been mentioned is that star point guard Zakai Zeigler tore his ACL and that Tennessee hasn’t been healthy since the end of January.

The conditions weren’t ideal for the Vols to make it out of the first weekend, right?

Another thing about basketball is that the stars don’t have to align. Anything can happen in March.

Anything is exactly what happened and Tennessee dominated Duke in every facet en route to a 65-52 win on Saturday to advance to the Sweet 16.

“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,” head coach Rick Barnes said. “As a coaching staff we're proud of them, and looking forward to getting going next week."

The Vols were physical and dominant on defense led by seniors Santiago Vescovi and Olivier Nkamhoua.

The Blue Devils were led by standout freshman Kyle Filipowski surrounded by other freshmen Dereck Lively, Dariq Whitehead and Tyrese Proctor. They were all five stars but the keyword for the night was freshmen.

On Saturday, experience trumped talent. Nkamhoua broke out for a 27-point performance, tying his previous career high he set earlier this season against Texas. Vescovi was his usual self and finished with 14 points, five rebounds and five assists.

"That's what we do. We're a tough, hard-nosed team. That's how we play everybody,” Nkamhoua said. “But knowing that they had a lot of freshmen, we knew that if we come in and apply more pressure and be tough and physical, then they would have to deal with it. 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."

The Vols’ physicality stunned the Blue Devils early and forced 10 first half turnovers. Combine that with a high tempo Tennessee offense, and the Vols had set the tone for the entire game.

It was the type of start and finish that Tennessee was hoping for.

“Right from the beginning, I felt our guys were really locked in,” Barnes said. “And when you've got a day in between and you play the late game like we did -- obviously we got back yesterday and came in. But from the time we walked in this building yesterday, I could just sense our guys were going to be really locked in.”

Once Duke had seemed like it was adjusting to the physicality and cut the deficit to 46-42, Nkamhoua went on a tear and scored 23 of his 27 in the second half, capped off with 17 of the Vols’ final 19 points.

Through this tough stretch of basketball entering the tournament, not once has Barnes gave up on this team or the team gave up on him. With each press conference, Barnes’ most used term was resilience to describe his group. 

What the Vols showed in Orlando turned from “coach-speak” to results. The Vols are still dancing thanks to everything they endured during the season. 

 "All you've got to do is two things. One, watch the way we practice. We're a really united team,” Vescovi said. “Second of all, as a player, you just look to the side, and everybody trusts each other.

"We're a man down, but we always have the mentality of next man up. And I couldn't trust more the guys that I have around me, the coaches. I think they all did a great job, and even the last couple weeks I think they were just building us up to this moment and getting us prepared for the tournament."

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.