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Tennessee basketball March Madness win vs. Louisiana was vintage Vols

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Well, at least it worked for one game. Tennessee basketball beat the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns Thursday night in its March Madness by utilizing what got it there: elite defense.

In fact, that was all you saw in this game. The Vols shot 4-of-16 from the three-point line and won just 58-55. They were up 30-19 at halftime and 48-30 with 12 minutes to go but, in typical Rick Barnes fashion, had a long, embarrassing dry spell on offense.

That dry spell was those final 12 minutes in which they just scored 10 points and failed to even hit a field goal in the final five minutes. They had to hold on for the victory.

Most notably, their best scorer, Santiago Vescovi, all but disappeared. Questions about his clutch gene persist, and he was 1-of-3 on the night in this one with just three points. With no Zakai Zeigler, that’s extra concerning.

So what secured the victory for them? Well, it was their ability to switch on the perimeter defensively. Louisiana depends on not hitting lots of threes but being very efficient. They were 6-of-18 on the night. That wasn’t enough.

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Sure, their star post player, Jordan Brown, had 16 points, but they needed either him to be more dominant or their outside shooters to be red-hot. Neither happened. On two-pointers UT was much more efficient shooting in the paint.

To a certain extent, this was everything wrong with college basketball: Poor shooting, too many mistakes on offense and too many whistles. Both teams were under 60 percent from the free throw line.

Still, Tennessee basketball deserves some credit. Rick Barnes’ team had nine steals. Vescovi, Jahmai Mashack and Julian Phillips each had two. On the inside, Jonas Aidoo did his part with two blocks.

Mashack had 11 points thanks to his aggression, and Tyreke Key, despite shooting poorly, finished with 12. Those were the only two players to score double figures.

Josiah-Jordan James hit a free throw to give the Vols a four-point lead with 23 seconds to go, and that’s effectively what sealed the deal as Louisiana air-balled a three on their next possession. Julian Phillips then went 1-of-2 from the line to seal the deal.

This style of play will not beat the No. 5 seed Duke Blue Devils in the Round of 32, whom the Vols will now face Saturday evening. However, the tournament is about survive and advance, and Tennessee basketball did that with this game.

Also, the inconsistency and law of averages with the Vols’ offense is actually a positive sign for Duke. James was off in this game shooting from three, as he was against the Missouri Tigers. That means he’s due in this one.

It should be unlikely as well that Vescovi disappears again. If James and Vescovi both go off, then Tennessee basketball has a great chance to pull off the upset.

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