It was announced an hour before tip-off that John Fulkerson and Kennedy Chandler would not be available for Tennessee’s SEC opener Wednesday night at No. 19 Alabama. Both players had tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from a brief Christmas break with symptoms.
Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes and the Vols had known about Fulkerson and Chandler’s absences and had prepared for days to play without them, but that did not make the task any easier. The Vols were going to be tested.
A short-handed Tennessee team (9-3, 0-1 SEC) led for nearly 30 minutes but ultimately fell short against No. 19 Alabama 73-68 to open SEC play Wednesday night at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Usual backup Zakai Zeigler was thrust into the starting lineup and handled himself well, but Tennessee’s lack of depth proved too much to overcome in the end.
“We had six or seven people during this time that tested positive,” Barnes said. “And people asked, ‘Are you going to not play because maybe other guys (would test positive)’ and I said, ‘No, we’re going to play.’ We’re going to take what we got and we’re going to go play. I’m proud of our guys.”
Zeigler was asked by his coaches to do the most of any player in handling the starting point guard duties with Chandler out. In his SEC debut, the 19-year old freshman Zeigler played 27 minutes and totaled 11 points and 4 assists.
“He's a tough guy, man. He's a warrior,” Barnes said of Zeigler. “We knew we'd be really good defensively with him. He’s guarding a guy that’s been in college basketball for three years and as good as anyone in ball screens. He followed him every step of the way. And offensively, he really went at it with them. I’m really proud of him and his effort.”
The Long Island, New York, native showed once again how much of a pest he can be on defense by racking up a pair of steals and playing with high energy until the very end. Zeigler committed 4 fouls, but with how thin the Vols were at guard, Barnes left him in the game regardless, a testament to the trust the staff has in the freshman.
“Z was amazing,” junior forward Olivier Nkamhoua said. “Zakai is always ready to step up and play hard. He’s always someone who is willing to take on a challenge against anybody. That’s what we love about him.”
The Vols had one of their most balanced offensive nights of the season, even with Fulkerson and Chandler out. Nkamhoua finished just shy of a double-double with a team-high 15 points and 9 rebounds, and Santiago Vescovi added 13 points and three triples.
Even Plavsic – starting at the five-spot in place of Fulkerson – did his part. The 7-foot-0 forward played a season-high 19 minutes and scored 6 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the free-throw line.
What ultimately cost the Vols was a collapse in the later stages of both halves. Alabama (10-3, 1-0 SEC) ended the final three minutes of the first half on a 10-0 run, and a similar defensive breakdown by the Vols in the second half gave Alabama the opportunity it needed, despite the Tide shooting 43% for the night and 23% from three-point range.
The Vols still had a chance at redemption after letting a second-half lead fall between their fingers. Zeigler – who had been such an important piece all night – missed a pair of threes that could have tied or given Tennessee the lead. Alabama made its late threes when it mattered, and Tennessee came up short of escaping Tuscaloosa with a odds-defying victory.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Barnes said. “I think they fought. We just didn’t score when we had a chance to do it sometimes. We missed a couple of shots you like to make. We were right there with a chance.”