Vescovi NCAA Tourney

University of Tennessee Volunteers basketball player Santiago Vescovi (25) scans the floor for an open teammate during a NCAA tournament game against the University Of Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns at Amway Center, Orlando, Florida, Mar. 16, 2023.

The Vols narrowly took down Louisiana 58-55 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, escaping after a strong second half push by the Ragin’ Cajuns.

“We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game,” head coach Rick Barnes said. “And kind of how we've done it many different times this year, we relied on our defense to get it done for us and found a way to score enough points the first half. Turned it over way too many uncharacteristic ways, but really good win, proud of our players.”

Here are some takeaways from the Vols’ win in the first game of March Madness.

The Vols survive and advance

The keyword is survive. That is all that you can ask for in March. A win is much better than the alternative, which is a loss that ends the season.

The Vols seemed to have found a rhythm and looked like they were going to coast to the second round, but a fierce comeback attempt by Louisiana altered those plans.

While that performance won’t cut it in the next round against Duke, Tennessee gives itself more time to figure it out with its win.

Turnovers are still an issue without Zeigler

Heading into the four minute media timeout in the first half, the eight minutes before then featured eight turnovers by the Vols. 

“Well, we can't trip over our own feet,” Barnes said. “We can't throw the ball to the guys that aren't looking. It goes back to simple execution. Just instead of trying to get cute on some sets, just call whatever we call, just execute it. It's really simple.”

It was reminiscent of Tennessee’s SEC Tournament appearance where turnovers allowed Ole Miss and Missouri to keep close. Against Ole Miss, the Vols were able to regroup and go on a run to win comfortably. However, against Missouri, the Vols’ turnovers led to the Tigers getting hot and pulling away.

For most of the first half against Louisiana, the Vols held a small lead before pulling away to end the half. Tennessee came out hot in the second half and it seemed like it was running away with it up 18. 

They key was that the Vols had limited the turnovers in that stretch. However, with 12 minutes to go, the issues came back and the Ragin’ Cajuns went on a 13-0 run, and it was a dogfight from then on.

“But again, give them credit,” Barnes said. “They came down -- and we had the chance to get in some gaps. They came down and took the ball away from us. You've got to give them credit for some of those turnovers. But from our point of view, we've got to be cleaner with the ball, there's no question.”

If the Vols want any chance moving forward, then they must find a way to limit the turnovers.

Offense stagnant without Vescovi (again)

The majority of those turnovers came without Vescovi on the floor due to foul trouble. He had two early fouls and sat for a large part of the first half, only recording seven minutes of action. 

In that span, Louisiana went on an 8-0 run and the Vols hadn’t hit any of their last seven field goals.

However, if the Vols want to make it anywhere without Zeigler, Barnes must trust Vescovi’s experience and maturity to not pick up another foul if they want to make it past this weekend.

Fortunately for Tennessee, they found a way to produce without Vescovi and ended the half on an 11-0 run after being tied at 19.

When he came in in the second half, the Vols began to steamroll the Ragin’ Cajuns. He certainly showed his struggles, ending the night with just three points, but his presence brings a different dynamic to the offense.

“Knowing that we can't have the overload on Santi to go in and score everything for us, we have to help him out,” sophomore guard Jahmai Mashack said. “And I think today was a good example of doing that. Just staying in rhythm, trying not to force anything but staying confident. We work on our game every day. So we stay confident, we're going to be fine.”

Other Notes

Tyreke Key and Mashack lead the scoring with 12 and 11, respectively. Key was a huge part in the Vols pulling away and Mashack helped end the Ragin’ Cajuns’ run late in the second half.

Uros Plavsic finished with nine points — all in the first half where he shot 4-of-4 from the field. Meanwhile, fellow big man Jonas Aidoo finished with six points, four rebounds and two game changing blocks.

The Vols now look ahead to red-hot No. 5 seed Duke on Sunday with hopes of continued survival.

I haven't seen them a lot. But I know Jon Scheyer has done a great job,” Barnes said. “And they beat a good team today. What little bit I did see, I thought their defense was outstanding against a team that can really shoot the ball. And like I said, they're a team that probably is as hot as any team in the country right now.”

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