Tennessee turned in one of its strongest efforts of the season Tuesday night as the Vols smoked Arkansas, 82-61 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Big Orange turned in their most complete performance of the season executing at a high level at both ends of the court.
“We come out every night trying to play really hard on the defensive end and to try to carry that energy over to our offense,” freshman forward Olivier Nkamhoua said. “Today I felt like we were able to execute on offense better than we have sometimes in the past. … We were able to run our stuff. When we execute we’re at our best.”
It was a first to last whistle dominant affair from the Vols. Desi Sills drilled a 3-pointer on the Razorbacks opening possession, but Jordan Bowden would answer with a triple of his own on the other end and Arkansas wouldn’t lead again.
Tennessee’s defense was dominant on the night holding the SEC’s fifth best offense 14 points under its season average.
Arkansas' struggles on the offensive end began in the first half when the ‘Hogs shot just 28% from the field. The Razorbacks also recorded 10 first half turnover, three more than made shots they had in the half.
Arkansas’ scored 15 more points in the second half, mostly due to 20 of 29 free throw shooting, but the rest of the Razorback’s offensive numbers weren’t much better than the first half.
Arkansas shot just 33% from the field and 3-point range in the second half but did cut its turnovers down to four.
Tennessee’s ability to slow down Arkansas’ dribble drive action was massive, especially after Alabama and Kentucky torched the Vols off the dribble last week.
“We knew we had to,” Barnes said of the on-ball defense. “People are going to keep coming at us until we prove that we can stop it, and I don’t think there’s any question that no one drives it harder than these guys (Arkansas).”
On the offensive end of the court Tennessee had its best night of the season, tying a season high 82 points. The performance was just the second time this season that the Vols have scored 80+ points.
The Vols’ got contributions on the offensive end from a number of players as five Tennessee players scored in double digits.
No one did more for Tennessee’s offense on the night than Santiago Vescovi. The freshman point guard was dominant all-night scoring a game high 20 points on 6 of 10 shooting, 3 of 5 from 3-point range, while dishing out a career high eight assists.
Jordan Bowden completed the night of strong play from Tennessee’s backcourt scoring 16 points, grabbing six rebounds and dishing out six assists.
Arkansas has the SEC’s shortest team and Tennessee’s front court was able to take advantage. John Fulkerson didn’t spend nearly the last 30 minutes of warmups on the court and appeared questionable to play while he deals with the flu.
Fulkerson was able to give it a go for the Big Orange and played well recording 14 points on an efficient 4-for-6 shooting, 6 of 8 at the charity stripe. The Kingston native would also add a team high eight rebounds in 28 minutes of work.
After seeing just two minutes last Wednesday at Alabama and not seeing the floor until the second half against Kentucky, Olivier Nkamhoua played 19 minutes Tuesday night. The freshman from Finland played his best game in his young career scoring 10 points on 2 of 2 shooting, 6 of 8 at the charity stripe, while additionally grabbing six rebounds and recording two assists.
“We knew our first big off the bench was going to be Olivier,” Barnes said. “He did some good things, he really did.”
Davonte Gaines is another Tennessee freshman who turned in a strong performance on the night. The freshman guard scored six points and grabbed seven rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench.
The long guard made his biggest impact on the defensive end where he recorded three steals and helped hold Arkansas star Mason Jones, who leads the SEC in points, to 1 of 10 shooting.
“He’s done it four games in a row now where he’s given us that,” Barnes said of Gaines’ defense. “He’s still making some mistakes that I think is just being young. … I think it’s one of the hardest things to do with young players is to get them to understand how hard they can play, and the other thing I hope they realize is that if they do that, they’ll get a chance to play. We’ll live with some of their mistakes.”
Gaines and Nkahmoua’s production were huge for Tennessee as the Vols have spent most of conference play getting little to no contributions from its bench.
“I think that’s huge and one of the biggest things that helped us today,” Vescovi said of Gaines and Nkamhoua’s play off the bench. “I’m feeling very good that both Olivier and Ticket (Gaines) stepped up and we needed both today. … They stepped up today.”
The win propels Tennessee to 14-10 on the season and 6-5 in SEC play. Arkansas falls to 16-8 and 4-7 in conference with the loss.
The Vols will return to action Saturday night when they travel to Columbia to take on South Carolina. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on SEC Network.