OXFORD, Miss. – Tennessee was expecting a challenging Southeastern Conference opener, and Mississippi provided a stiff test.
Then Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler delivered for the Vols.
Vescovi scored 22 points and combined with Zeigler to convert six free throws in the final 1:09, helping No. 7 Tennessee top Mississippi 63-59 on Wednesday.
“It’s going to be a grind every night,” Volunteers coach Rick Barnes said. “It’s the kind of game we expected. They were tougher than us in the first half, but in the second half, we played well and did the things that have gotten us to this point. Overall, it’s a real good win.”
Vescovi converted two free throws to make it 63-57 with 19 seconds remaining. Zeigler added 13 points as Tennessee (11-2, 1-0) rallied from an early 10-point hole and a 34-28 halftime deficit.
“Starting the conference schedule with a `W’ really means a lot to us,” Vescovi said. “It’s a real confidence boost. Good road win.”
Ole Miss (8-5, 0-1) was led by Jaemyn Brakefield with 18 points, including four 3-pointers in the second half. Amaree Abram added 10 points while Matthew Murrell, averaging 15.6 points per game, was held to five points on 1-for-11 shooting.
“Those two guards (Vescovi and Zeigler) were really good, maybe the toughest in the league,” Mississippi coach Kermit Davis said. “But this was typical Ole Miss and Tennessee. Our guys competed their tails off and Tennessee got it done at the end. Tennessee is impressive.”
Jonas Aidoo had a game-high 13 rebounds as the Vols outrebounded Ole Miss 38-28.
“I told Jonas that I didn’t need him to shoot like he was in the first half,” Barnes said. “I needed him to make the difference inside by being physical. … That was big for us in the second half.”
Ole Miss finished 19 of 51 (37%) from the field. It converted only seven baskets in the second half, including four by Brakefield.
Tennessee: It wasn’t pretty, but winning the SEC road opener was the top priority. The Vols proved capable of grinding it out despite falling behind 31-21 in the opening 15 minutes. The defense and rebounding were the difference in the second half, limiting Ole Miss to 7 of 25 from the field.
Ole Miss: The loss was disappointing, especially after a deflating home loss to North Alabama and an inconsistent December. The defense and Brakefield had quality performances, but the Rebels were not strong enough to overcome an atypical shooting night by Murrell.
“We aren’t going to hang our heads, there is a long way to go,” Brakefield said. “We played hard and they did, too. They made the shots at the end.”
Tennessee: The SEC home opener is a visit from No. 21 Mississippi State on Jan. 3.
Ole Miss: The Rebels begin a two-game road trip at No. 8 Alabama on Jan. 3.