In the absence of the injured Zakai Ziegler, it was point guard by committee in the Vols’ 58-55 first-round just-barely win over Louisiana. Jahmai Mashack, Santiago Vescovi, Josiah-Jordan James, and Tyreke Key all took turns bringing the ball upcourt.
With 12 points, Key may be the best answer for coherence on offense. James scored eight but in the first half passed to an empty space that Tobe Awaka had vacated to set a screen. Vescovi had only three points—a lovely bankshot trey early on—and a steal and a pass to James for a layup but had the ball taken from his hands in the first five minutes, one of UT’s 19 turnovers for the game.
Mashack made several dandy steals, made lots of midrange jumpers, and three of four free throws to total 11 points. “He is getting comfortable on the court,” said forward Jonas Aidoo. “You can see it out there. He is growing every single day. We are comfortable with him handling the ball and making plays for us now.”
Aidoo, Awaka, and Olivier Nkamhoua were strong on blocked shots and rebounds. Nkamhoua scored eight with three dandy assists—including a bounce pass to Uros Plavsic in the paint for two of his nine points and one to Aidoo for a dunk. Nkamhuoa’s follow slam of a rebound put the Vols up 43-25 with 14 minutes left to play. The Ragin Cajuns then went on a 13-0 run to make it a close contest.
In his first NCAA tourney game, McDonald’s All-America freshman Julian Phillips seemed out of sorts, scoring only a single free throw, an important one, to make it 58-53 with 8.3 seconds to go.
To prevail in the second round against Duke on Saturday at 2:40 p.m., the Vols must avoid turnovers, Vescovi will have to return to his scoring ways, and Phillips must find firm footing to display his considerable talent.