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Tennessee basketball: Rick Barnes not surprised Vols had to struggle to beat Vanderbilt

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They came in ranked No. 5 in both polls and favored by more than 17 points at home against a team barely above .500. Tennessee basketball walked away with just a 77-68 win over the Vanderbilt Commodores.

However, Rick Barnes, notorious for being a tough critic and setting a high standard for his players, didn’t apologize for the win. He praised Vanderbilt more than he criticized the Vols for keeping it close.

“I think every time we play against Vanderbilt it proves what I’ve always said about Jerry Stackhouse,” Barnes said in his postgame press conference. “He’s a terrific coach. His guys execute. They don’t turn the ball over. They don’t beat themselves. When they’re making shots, like any team, it makes everything better for everybody when they’re making shots.”

Early on, it looked like Tennessee basketball would have one of its dominant defensive performances, as the Vols jumped out to a 7-0 lead ahead of the first media timeout. They were up 24-15 with under nine minutes to go.

However, Vandy fought back and ended the half on a 7-0 run to go up 39-37 at halftime. Barnes said he expected the Commodores to put up a fight and make this close.

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“Every time we play them, it’s a grind,” he said. “I know our guys have terrific respect for them. We broke down a couple times in the first half, with our scouting report, where we left over help.” 

It is true Vandy, even when they have been bad under Stackhouse, usually puts up a fight with the Vols. Heading into Tuesday night’s game, two of the Vols three wins against Vandy at home were by single digits.

Meanwhile, Vanderbilt, despite being 8-8, has only lost two games this year by double figures and hasn’t lost a game by more than 12 points. They only lost by three ate the Missouri Tigers, a top 25 team, this past weekend.

UT won this game with its bigs stepping up and its go-to three-point shooter doing what he needs to do. Julian Phillips and Santiago Vescovi each had 15 points to lead the way. Barnes said Phillips moved better without the ball.

“I thought he was making more than one cut, stopping and playing,” he said of Phillips. “The first play of the game he made a great what we call a marine cut, he came back off the money pin down and kept going, got going downhill. That’s a big thing for him. He made a great effort to get on the glass.”

Indeed, Phillips had six rebounds. Olivier Nkamhoua had five to help out. Vescovi, however, also had six rebounds, adding a bit of aggression to his shooting.

Speaking of shooting, Vescovi was 3-of-6 from the three-point line. It’s clear he is out of his slump, and that take the Vols to another level of dangerous.

“Santi has a really good feel,” Barnes said. “I didn’t think he was as locked in offensively as much. I thought he was a little too casual to start. Defensively, he was locked in at the start.”

Remarkably, Phillips was part of a Tennessee basketball postgame that dominated without Nkamhoua doing the bulk of the scoring. Coming off a double-double, Nkamhoua had just six points in an off-night.

Instead, Uros Plavsic stepped up. Plavsic went 4-of-7 from the field and hit all three of his free throws to score 11 points. He also had six rebounds and an incredible three steals. Barnes emphasized ball-screen defense for Plavsic.

“We told him he needed to get better there,” he said. “We told him he was going to have to rebound, but the biggest thing too, offensively, is knowing his space on the floor, where he’s got to get, and get there, and (we) expect him to be aggressive.”

Plavsic, Nkamhoua and Phillips each had a block as well. Tyreke Key, who had eight points and was 3-of-8 from the field, also had a block.

Coming off the bench, Zakai Zeigler was huge, as he had nine assists. He has dished out 27 assists over the past three games. Barnes said he is getting better.

“He’s learning because he’s never been what I think he would tell you is a natural point guard,” he said. “He’s always been a scorer. It’s what he has been asked to do. So he’s learning to play. It’s exciting to think how much better he can get.”

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