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No. 9 Tennessee finds answers in shorthanded win at Mississippi State

IMG_3593by:Grant Ramey01/17/23


STARKVILLE, Miss. — No. 9 Tennessee was shorthanded, missing two starters, and slogging through the first half Tuesday night against Mississippi State at Humphrey Coliseum. Then the second half started and suddenly the Vols found answers.

Zakai Zeigler scored a career-high 24 points and Julian Phillips scored 18, with the duo taking over with a combined 29 points after halftime as Tennessee won 70-59 to sweep the regular-season series against Mississippi State.

Zeigler hit four 3-pointers in the second half and Phillips scored 13 of his 18 points after halftime, to go with 11 rebounds for the double-double, to lead the Vols (15-3, 5-1 SEC). Josiah-Jordan James added 13 points and four rebounds and Olivier Nkamhoua had seven points and a team-high eight boards.

Mississippi State (12-6, 1-5) got 20 from Shakeel Moore and 11 from Tolu Smith while losing for the sixth time in its last seven games, including the 87-53 loss at Tennessee two weeks ago.

The Vols were playing shorthanded this time around, missing senior guards Santiago Vescovi (shoulder) and Tyreke Key (illness). Vescovi appeared to aggravate the left shoulder sprain in the 63-56 loss to Kentucky on Saturday in Knoxville, the same injury that cost him two games last month. 

Phillips scored eight straight points — four free throws, a two-hand dunk off an Uros Plavsic miss in the paint and then a drive and finish through traffic — during a three-minute stretch in the second half, from the 11:04 mark until 8:01, helping Tennessee trade leads with State.

Zeigler went on a 5-0 run over back-to-back possessions, hitting a three with 6:43 left, his third of the half, and then scored in the paint on the next trip down, building Tennessee’s lead back to six and forcing a Mississippi State timeout.

When State answered with a bucket out of the timeout, Zeigler answered with an even deeper three. When State hit a three on the other end, James hit one of his own, keeping Tennessee up six.

Next was Nkamhoua, with 2:48 left, making it a 6-0 Tennessee run and giving the Vols a nine-point lead, their biggest of the game to that point.

It took Tennessee nearly nine minutes in the first half to reach 10 points, but the Vols scored 10 within the first four minutes of the second half and built a 38-33 lead after a quick 8-0 run, capped by a bucket from Phillips and a three from Zeigler.

Zeigler hit another three with 13:56 left to get the lead to six, giving Tennessee 18 points in just over six minutes. State responded to the six-point deficit, its biggest of the game, with a 9-1 run to retake the lead with just over 11 minutes left.

Vols rallied from down nine in first half to tie game at halftime

Tennessee trailed by as many as nine points in the first half, but closed on a 6-0 run, tying the game on a Phillips offensive rebound and putback with 34 seconds left until halftime, sending the game into the break tied at 29-29.

Zeigler scored eight points in the first half, going 2-for-6 from the field, 0-for-6 from the 3-point line and 4-for-4 at the foul line. He had five of Tennessee’s 11 turnovers in the first half. Phillips had five points and four rebounds in the first half and freshman forward Tobe Awaka had three points off the bench. 

Tennessee shot 32.0 percent from the field (8-25) and just 13.3 percent from the 3-point line (2-15) in the first half. Mississippi State shot just 30.8 percent from the field (8-26) and 12.5 percent from the 3-point line (1-8) and missed five of its 11 free-throw attempts. 

State scored 10 points off Tennessee’s 11 turnovers. The Vols won the rebounding battle in the first half, 21-16.

Up Next: No. 9 Tennessee at LSU, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Vols are back on the road Saturday, facing LSU in a 4 p.m. Eastern Time tip-off inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge. The game can be seen on ESPN.

They’re back home next week, hosting Georgia on Wednesday and No. 7 Texas on January 28 in a Big 12-SEC Challenge game at Thompson-Boling Arena. 

Tennessee on Thursday announced that three games are officially sold out: Texas, Auburn (February 4) and No. 4 Alabama (February 15).

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