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Team success prevails over personal goals for Tennessee Basketball in 86-51 victory over Texas A&M

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Zakai Ziegler pleaded with coach Rick Barnes to leave him in for another possession.

Ziegler was closing in on a rare feat for a Tennessee player – a triple double. A Vol hadn’t recorded one since Tyler Smith turned the trick in December 2008.

Ziegler knew he was close, but Barnes wouldn’t relent.

“If I left him in for one more possession, he would have wanted another,’’ Barnes said.

Ziegler finished with nine points, nine rebounds, 14 assists and four steals with no turnovers as Tennessee (21-6, 11-3 SEC) avenged a 16-point loss at Texas A&M two weeks ago with a resounding 86-51 rout of the Aggies (15-12, 6-8) Saturday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.

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Ziegler downplayed the close call with the triple double, saying, “We got the win.” But he added as he walked off the post-game podium: “Of course I wanted the triple double.’’

Ziegler was magnificent, despite not having a good shooting night – he was 3-of-10 from the field.

“I think he’s so underrated,’’ said Aggies coach Buzz Williams. “He’s an elite ball defender. He has great speed. He’s the engine. … He’s the conduit to what they do on both sides of the ball.’’

Ziegler made precision passes that led to easy baskets time and again, once finding Jahmai Mashack with a bullet between defenders that led to a dunk. He made a steal on a back-court inbounds pass, something he’s done several times this season. He notched nine rebounds despite being generously listed at 5-foot-9.

Ziegler’s stellar performance came just days after a poor outing at Missouri in which Ziegler had 10 points on 3-of-9 shooting, three assists, two turnovers and one rebound.

“He played one of his worst games since he’s been here at Missouri,’’ Barnes said. “I was hard on him after the Missouri game and he fixed it.

“What can you say about a guy that gets nine rebounds and distributes the ball like that. He’s a special player.’’

The player Williams called “unheralded’’ – Ziegler admitted he didn’t know what that means — leads the SEC in assists, ranks second in steals, and third in assists-to-turnover ratio while averaging 10.9 points.

“He’s the best point guard in the nation,’’ said UT’s leading scorer, Dalton Knecht.

Ziegler wasn’t the lone star on a night in which the Vols handed Rick Barnes his 800th career win and tied Alabama for first place in the SEC standings.

Center/forward Jonas Aidoo had 18 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks. Knecht had a game-high 24 points, hitting 4-of-9 from 3-point range. Tobe Awaka had 12 points and six rebounds off the bench. And Josiah-Jordan James and Santigo Vescovi combined for 14 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.

The Vols pounded the nation’s No. 1 offensive rebounding team 50-33 on the boards, had 23 assists to 12 turnovers and held the Aggies to a paltry 27.3% from the field and 20.6% on 3s (A&M was 7-of-34 from distance).

“We probably shot too many 3s,’’ Williams said. “We’re reliant on offensive rebounds. We’re reliant on getting fouled. If we shoot too many (3s) we do not get as many offensive rebounds.’’

Another factor was UT’s defense. Aggie guards Wade Taylor and Tyrece Radford combined for 52 points in A&M’s win in College Station  — hitting 11-of-14 3s. They combined for 22 points in Knoxville, making 5-of-19 3s. Taylor hit his first three from distance, then didn’t score again until the final four minutes.  

“The first 16 minutes, I thought we were connected and competed,’’ Williams said of the game being tied at 24-24. “It was the best 16-minute stretch since the last time we played Tennessee.’’

But the Vols went on a 13-3 run and led 37-27 at halftime thanks to Vescovi’s buzzer-beating 3.

UT pulled away in the second half thanks to elite defense, hot shooting and Ziegler.

“They’re really good,’’ Williams said of UT. “They’re really good here. And the things they’re good at, we didn’t make it difficult for them.’’

Williams praised Ziegler. He praised Knecht. He praised Aidoo. He praised Awaka.

But while Williams was issuing praise, Barnes was issuing a warning.

“Our guys understand,’’ Barnes said, “that if we’re not locked in, we could get beat by any team and get beat badly.’’

But when the Vols are locked in, they can beat any team – and beat them badly.

Just ask Texas A&M.

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