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Tennessee basketball: Despite blowing a lead, Rick Barnes shouldn’t apologize for beating Maryland

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It was a tale of two halves for Tennessee basketball Sunday. At the Basketball Hall of Fame Invitational at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Vols held off the Maryland Terrapins for a 56-53 win.

UT, ranked No. 7, led by 21 in the first half and had to hold on in the second half to win. They needed a final defensive stand to secure the victory, as UMD’s Jahmir Young missed a three at the last second.

Despite blowing a lead in New York City, N.Y., Tennessee basketball beat the No. 13 ranked team on a neutral court. Rick Barnes, ever the critic, would not apologize for such a win.

“I love the fact our guys were really locked in there at the end,” Barnes said in his postgame press conference. “Olivier (Nkamhoua) said, ‘Hey, coach told us we’re going to be in games like this all year, and we’ve got to find a way to win it.’ I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed in losing a lead if we’re doing what we need to do.”

Although the Vols did make some mistakes in the second half and missed far too many free throws, shooting 11-of-21 on the day, Maryland and Kevin Willard made plenty of adjustments. UT was also short-handed.

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After returning for two games, Josiah-Jordan James missed this one. Santiago Vescovi returned but clearly wasn’t himself. Meanwhile, Jonas Aidoo, a key reserve in the post, also missed the game.

Still, without Aidoo, Tennessee basketball won this game on the glass. The Vols outrebounded the Terps 48-40 and had 21 offensive boards. Julian Phillips had 10 rebounds, Olivier Nkamhoua had nine, and filling in for Aidoo, Tobe Awaka came in and had eight.

“I’m really happy for Tobe (Awaka). I really am,” Barnes said. “He’s a guy that, what he did today is what we knew he was about. He’s a rebounder, and he’s a force. He goes and gets it.” 

Zakai Zeigler also helped. He finished the game as the only player to score double figures for the Vols, coming away with 12 points in the game.

To be fair, Tyreke Key had nine points, and both he and Zeigler hit two three-pointers. However, Zeigler also had three assists, three rebounds and a steal off the bench, so he was most of the offense.

“He’s just a warrior in the fact he never gets tired, and he’s going to keep playing and going to keep competing,” Barnes said of Zeigler. “I thought he did a great job dealing with the type of pressure in the backcourt the last two games.”

This isn’t to say the Vols didn’t make mistakes. As mentioned, they shot 11-of-21 from the free throw line, and they shot 12-of-45 from two.

What helped them was UMD shooting 2-of-24 from three while they shot 7-of-21. Still, Barnes noted that his team missed far too many easy shots in the second half.

“At halftime we talked about it. I don’t care who you (play), they’re going to make a push in the second half, and we bogged down in the second half,” Barnes said. “Missed too many layups. We had some point-blank layups that we’ve got to make.”

Maryland turned up the pressured defensively in the second half, which helped with UT’s struggles. Also, the Vols weren’t the same on defense.

However, Barnes noted some of those issues came down to fatigue. Tennessee basketball was only able to go eight-deep in this game given the injuries. He also noted that winning games like this is important for the program.

“People tell me all the time, man, if that team is shooting well, they can beat anybody,” he said. “That’s true about 150 teams in the country. Making shots, it all looks pretty. But can you win when it’s ugly? I thought that second half was certainly ugly for us, but we found a way to win the game.”

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