PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Rick Barnes believes his Tennessee squad is a good offensive team, although the 22nd-ranked Volunteers haven’t consistently shown that in the early weeks of the season.
It’s good that the defense is in strong form.
Santiago Vescovi scored all 13 of his points after halftime, sparking the crucial run that helped Tennessee beat Butler 71-45 in the first round of Battle 4 Atlantis on Wednesday night.
Vescovi hit three 3-pointers during a 17-1 run that laid the game open for the Volunteers (3-1), who shot 53% after halftime. Tennessee led 28-23 at the break and then responded when Butler got in a basket with the big run that put the Vols 18 points ahead midway through the second half.
“I think we were pretty consistent with our (defensive) scouting report,” Barnes said.
There were two key stretches where Tennessee began to assert control. The first came at the end of the first half when the Volunteers gave the Bulldogs a 28-23 lead (3-2) without a basket at the last 5-05 before the break.
Even more costly were the seven second-half minutes Tennessee locked in the Bulldogs in the second half, this time during the 17-1 run.
“For the most part, it’s just their denial,” said butler guard Eric Hunter Jr. “They’ll deny you and throw you quite a ways out to about 30 feet or even halfway at times. I think that was it, that kind of got us out of our stuff.”
Julian Phillips added 11 points for Tennessee, who were without top scorer Josiah-Jordan James (13.7) due to left knee pain. He had an offseason procedure at the same joint.
Jayden Taylor scored 18 points with four 3s and led the Bulldogs (3-2), who shot just 31.9%. No other player reached double digits in a roster understaffed by early injuries and caught in early foul troubles like big man Manny Bates, who played just 4:38 in the first half with two fouls.
“We couldn’t recover as much as we needed in terms of execution in the second half,” said coach Thad Matta. “And then we tied our offense to our defense and we weren’t as effective defensively as we needed to be.”
Butler: The Bulldogs are playing the first season of Matta’s second stint as coach, the other coming in 2000-01. They had shot 53.1% through the first four games but had it much tougher this time, especially behind the arc. After shooting 3s at 36.6%, the Bulldogs only went 5 of 23 in this case – including 1 of 10 after halftime.
“It hit us like a snowball,” Matta said.
Tennessee: The Volunteers opened the season at No. 11 on the AP Top 25 before stumbling against Colorado on Nov. 13 in Nashville. They responded with a 31-point win on the Florida Gulf Coast, clinching another one-sided win despite missing a key player.
THE KEY SPACE
Phillips only led 36-34 and started the run with a driving basket, then Vescovi followed with a 3 from the left wing from an inbounds pass.
That got Vescovi going. He followed up with another 3 from the right corner after a kickout feed from Zakai Zeigler and then hit a third from the right wing after another feed from Zeigler.
When Vescovi jumped Eric Hunter Jr.’s pass and scored on a runout, Tennessee led 53-35 with 9:15 to go.
“What got me going was undoubtedly my teammates,” said Vescovi. “The energy that they put on the defensive is just something contagious that gets everyone going.”
Butler: The Bulldogs face BYU, who lost in the first round to Southern California, in Thursday’s consolation round.
Tennessee: The Volunteers advanced to the semifinals on Thursday to face USC, who defeated BYU in the first round on Wednesday.
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