Men's Basketball vs. ETSU

Zakai Zeigler, 5, dribbling the ball during the UT vs ETSU game in Thompson Boling Arena on Sunday Nov. 14, 2021.

Zakai Zeigler did not have a Division I offer until Aug. 9, when Tennessee offered to the former three-star prospect. He took his official visit to Tennessee on Aug. 22, and five days later, he officially enrolled, four days into the semester.

The potential lack of playing time behind five-star Kennedy Chandler didn’t faze him. Zeigler just wanted a place to play.

Zeigler showed exactly why Rick Barnes wanted him, as he led the No. 17 Vols to an 89-72 win over No. 18 North Carolina Sunday evening at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament in Uncasville, Connecticut.

“Honestly from the jump, I felt good coming into it,” Zeigler, a Long Island, New York, native said. “But we all were hyped about it. We wanted to bounce back from yesterday. I really think after we lost yesterday, that’s when it really clicked for me to be honest. We were all locked in more than we already were, and we knew we had to come back in here today.”

Zeigler led Tennessee’s balanced scoring effort with 18 points, 5 assists, 2 steals and no turnovers off the bench. After being limited to 53 points on 37% shooting Saturday against No. 5 Villanova, the Vols shot 54% from the field and 45% from three-point range on their way to their first ranked win of the season.

In Saturday’s loss, the Vols could not get anything done on offense. Santiago Vescovi was the only Vol to finish with double digit points, accounting for 43% of the Vols’ scoring. Tennessee remedied that problem Sunday.

“I’ve got to give these guys a lot of credit, because most of these guys have never done what we did today on a one day turnaround,” Barnes said. “Walking through, going through the scoring report. You could tell when they were in there, they were locked in.”

Four Vols finished in double figure points as Tennessee defeated North Carolina for the first time since 1949. Zeigler led, followed closely by Vescovi (17 points), Chandler (14) and John Fulkerson (13). Every Volunteer that took a shot made at least one.

“Certainly Zakai did a great job,” Barnes said. “Santi (Vescovi) throughout the tournament, Kennedy, everyone today. There was not one person who played for us today who did not make a great contribution someway, somehow.”

Zeigler didn’t start, but came off the bench about five minutes into the first half. Barnes rolled out a three-guard look, playing Zeigler, Chandler and Vescovi at the same time. With those three speedy guards in, Tennessee commanded the game on offense, and North Carolina could do nothing to stop their tempo.

“I thought the three-guard lineup was very effective for us today,” Barnes said. “The tempo, the speed, one thing we said all year, ‘We want to play at a very high tempo. A really high tempo.’ And we got it with all three guys, because any one of the three can bring it, which they did.”

Even though Barnes was playing three smaller guards, Tennessee’s defense did not take a step back. North Carolina — scoring its lowest points total of the season — shot just 40% from the field and committed 13 turnovers on the evening. Tennessee outrebounded North Carolina 38-30, including 30 defensive boards to North Carolina’s 5 offensive rebounds.

All three guards were excellent on defense — combining for 14 defensive rebounds — as was freshman Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, who grabbed 5 boards, a block and a steal.

If Zeigler can continue to be productive, it gives the Vols that much more depth. There is less pressure on both Chandler and Vescovi to run the point, knowing a more than capable guard in Zeigler is waiting in the wings.

It’s a role that Zeigler has earned since he stepped onto campus, months later than the under-scouted prospect should have.

“We’ve always had confidence in him from the time that he walked on campus,” Barnes said of Zeigler. “Within a week, the strides he made so early, we knew we could count on him. I’m always kidding with him about, 'You can’t do this, you cant do that.’ But he looked up at me and said ‘We’ll see.’ But we’ve never had a lack on confidence in him, ever.”

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