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Tennessee survives Texas 62-58 by brandishing the Vols’ strong defense

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Tennessee wouldn’t have been deemed one of the best teams in college basketball without Dalton Knecht. However, the Vols survived the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament with their star player struggling mightily.

The Superman in orange this season looked much more like Clark Kent than the Man of Steel in a 62-58 battle with Texas on Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. 

The Vols managed to navigate an odd first half in which Knecht didn’t score his first point until there was just 6:57 left in the first half and Jonas Aidoo seemingly couldn’t hit a lay up before halftime. With scoring being tough to come by, the Vols were still well equipped to advance thanks to another Vol hallmark: defense.

Tennessee was long considered one of the best defensive teams in the country. That defense allowed the Vols to hang in the game against the Longhorns when the offense was, well, offensive.

The season-long star, Knecht, hit just 5 of 18 shots after making one lone shot among eight attempts in the first half. The star of the first round win against St. Peter’s, Jonas Aidoo, hit just 4 of 12 shots for 11 points and was just two-of-six shooting in the first half. Both had a whopping four points before halftime.

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Tennessee came into the matchup against Texas giving up 67 points per game. The Longhorns struggled to get anywhere close to that.

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Knecht’s play against Texas could be worrisome or, perhaps, a reason for optimism depending on one’s perspective of the Vols’ performance on Saturday. On one hand, the Vols provided a strong statement that they can win a big game without their best offensive player racking up points. On the other hand, Knecht was sort of ho-hum in an easy win against St. Peter’s in the opening round of the tournament. Is he slumping a bit?

Credit Knecht for never lacking effort during a poor shooting night. As he was woeful from the three-point range, just 1 of 8 from the arc, Knecht attacked the basket when he could with a couple of thunderous dunks. No matter the box score, Knecht never seemed to get down on himself even as pressure mounted on the Vols midway through the second half on multiple occasions

Texas cut the Vols’ lead from 12 to three points in the second half, but had the perfect antidote, more defense and some Knecht, who hit a marvellous faraway three-pointer to put the Vols up 50-42 with just about five minutes left. In other words, Knecht wasn’t ready to hang up his jump shot just because it wasn’t falling early.

Knecht may have to deal with scoring a few less points per game for the remainder of the tournament. After all, he’s a well-known commodity nowadays. He’ll certainly be the top defensive priority for the Vols next opponent in Detroit for the Sweet 16 on Friday.

Tennessee has quite a few ways to win a game. Knecht can get white hot. Aidoo can dominate the paint. However, there may be no better way to win in March for the Vols than defense, given just how good Tennessee was at getting stops and forcing missed shots on the perimeter. Make no mistake. Texas didn’t play well, but the Vols were a strong factor in a bevy of missed shots.

What is Tennessee’s best avenue toward a Final Four, which would be the first such run in school history, or even a national championship? While the Vols have stars and plenty of scoring ability getting defensive seems like the safest way to survive and advance.

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