Tennessee basketball bounced back from a 18-point loss to No. 5 Villanova with a 17-point victory over No. 18 North Carolina, 89-72 in the consolation round of the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament.
The Vols looked like a completely different team Sunday, shooting 54% from the field to pick up their third win of the season.
Here are three takeaways from Tennessee’s signature win over head coach Hubert Davis’ Tar Heels.
The Zakai Zeigler game
Freshman point guard Zakai Zeigler caught the attention of head coach Rick Barnes the moment he stepped on campus. The seventh-year Tennessee head coach knew he had found a gem.
“He’s earned his right on the court,” Barnes said. “He’s a smart player, he’s adjusting to college basketball.”
“We’ve always had confidence in him from the time he walked on campus — within a week, the strides he made so early … we knew we could count on him. We’ve never had a lack of confidence in him, ever.”
Zeigler was an unknown three-star prospect from the Bronx in the preseason. The 5-foot-9 point guard had zero scholarship offers straight out of high school before eventually signing with the Vols in late August to round out Tennessee’s 2021 recruiting class.
Zeigler joined a roster with perhaps one of the top point guards in the nation, Kennedy Chandler. Rather than shy away from the challenge of fighting for minutes, Zeigler reveled in the opportunity to compete alongside Chandler.
“It’s great. If I can’t bring it up he can, if he can’t I can. We’re both quick, I like playing up-tempo and I’m really sure he does,” Zeigler said. “I’ve never played with somebody like that.”
Zeigler thrived alongside Chandler Sunday, dropping a career high 18 points with 5 assists and zero turnovers off the bench. Fourteen of Zeigler’s points came in the second half.
Zeigler did a little bit of everything against the Tar Heels, but more importantly cemented himself as a player Barnes can count on for years to come.
No James, no problem
Josiah Jordan James was sidelined for Sunday’s game with a torn finger ligament and an illness that materialized after Tennessee’s loss to Villanova Saturday afternoon.
“We all feel for him because he’s such a huge part of our program,” Barnes said. “He can’t seem to catch a break. He hurt his finger yesterday and woke up sick (Sunday) morning.”
“He’ll be fine. He’s going to help us win a lot of games this year.”
James has struggled from the field to start the 2021-22 season for Tennessee hoops having scored just 13 points this season, faring 1-15 from deep.
His importance on the court for the Vols cannot be overstated, though. The junior, former five-star recruit is averaging 5 rebounds, a block and 3 steals per game through three games, often acting as a fix-it player for Tennessee.
Barnes was forced to run separate lineups without the services of Tennessee’s Swiss Army Knife type of player. Rotations that had success were the lineups including multiple guards on the court at once — Zeigler, Chandler, Justin Powell and Santiago Vescovi.
“I thought the three-guard lineup was very effective for us today,” Barnes said. “Certainly Zakai did a great job, Santi, Kennedy. There was not one person that played for us today that did not make a great contribution someway, somehow."
Vescovi, Zeigler and Chandler led the charge from deep, especially in the second half. The trio combined for 8 threes on 53% shooting.
Tennessee shot 9-of-20 from beyond the line as a unit.
Vols pick up first win over UNC since 1949
The Vols picked up their second ever win against the Tar Heels Sunday. Tennessee was previously 1-11 against North Carolina heading into this matchup.
Tennessee’s last win over North Carolina was in 1949.
“Most of these guys have never done what we did today on a one day turnaround,” Barnes said. “You can tell they were locked in. I think more than anything they know how hard they work together … they wanted to go and play great team basketball.”
Tennessee saw a balanced scoring attack from the jump. Four Vols — Zeigler, Chandler, Vescovi and John Fulkerson — scored in the double digits.
The Vols had their best defensive outing against a Tar Heels squad putting up good offensive numbers so far this season. North Carolina was held under 80 points for the first time Sunday.
Tennessee held a high-powered offense featuring Brady Manek, RJ Davis and Caleb Love to just 40% shooting from the field.
Vescovi and Zeigler led the way with a couple steals each, winning the turnover differential after committing 18 turnovers Saturday against Villanova.
“We wanted to bounce back from yesterday,” Zeigler said. “After we lost yesterday that’s when it really clicked. We were all locked in more than we were, and we knew what we had to come back and do today.”