Men's Basketball vs. UT Martin

Santiago Vescovi (25) mid free-throw on Tuesday Nov. 9, 2021 during the Vols season-opener against UT Martin in Thompson Boling Arena.

Tennessee entered Saturday’s early season tournament matchup against No. 5 Villanova eyeing its first victory against a top-5 opponent since downing No. 4 Kentucky in the 2019 SEC Tournament.

To say the Vols fell short of that achievement is an understatement. Tennessee went cold on offense, shooting just 33% from the field as a team in one of the least inspiring performances of the past few seasons. The Wildcats trounced the Vols at the Basketball Hall of fame Tip-Off tournament at Mohegan Sun casino, 71-53.

Tennessee set the tone for its afternoon early. Former five-star prospect Kennedy Chandler took the ball up the floor and drove to the basket off the tip, connecting on a tough floater before being called for a charge that negated the basket. It was all downhill from there for Chandler and the Vols.

Chandler picked up his second foul soon after. Head coach Rick Barnes sat Chandler on the bench for most of the remainder of the first half.

“When Kennedy picked up his second (foul), he just let the guy do exactly what we have worked on for three days not to do,” Barnes said. “He’s going to learn a lot from that.”

“I told him when I took him out, ‘I hope you’ve learned a lot today. A lot of the things you’ve gotten by with in the past are not going to happen anymore.’”

Chandler, who averaged 19 points in his previous two games, scored just 6 points on 1-9 shooting in 25 minutes of play to finish his afternoon. The usually aggressive, dominant point guard — for the first time all season — looked like a freshman Saturday.

In a lot of ways, Tennessee was humbled against the historically great Wildcats. The Vols shot 33% from the field and just 5-28 from deep, an extreme outlier for a team shooting 42% from behind the line entering the contest.

Only junior guard Santiago Vescovi scored in the double digits, draining 4 of Tennessee’s 5 three-pointers on the afternoon for 23 points, the most by any player on either team. Freshman guard Zakai Zeigler was second for the Vols in scoring with 7 points in seven minutes on the floor.

Vescovi kept shooting when the baskets weren’t falling, something nobody else on the Vols roster can say. The Montevideo, Uruguay, native finished 7-17 from the field with 6 rebounds.

“We let missed shots affect us, we lost our aggression on defense,” Barnes said.

Apart from Vescovi, a veteran presence was absent for most of the game. Tenured players in Barnes’ system, aside from Vescovi, combined for just 6 points on offense.

“Fulky, Josiah (Jordan-James) and (Victor Bailey) didn’t have great games today. I thought (Vescovi) played his heart out,” Barnes said. “Those four have been through the battles for us.”

“All these other guys, they’ve certainly never played a team like Villanova.”

Vescovi dropped 18 points on LSU in his first game as a Vol as a midseason transfer in 2020. He knows what it is like to be thrown into big-time games early in his career and is confident the less experienced players on the team will bounce back Sunday against either No. 6 Purdue or No. 18 North Carolina.

“Like coach said, there’s a lot of people on our team that haven’t played these kinds of games,” Vescovi said. “… This is good for us, it’s going to help everyone on the team learn where we have to get to.”

“We have another game tomorrow … right now we need to start thinking about the game we have tomorrow, and then once we get back we’ll have a lot of time to learn from this game and see what we have to work on to get better.”

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