STARKVILLE, Miss. – Following a loss at home against Kentucky and having starters Santiago Vescovi and Tyreke Key out, No. 9 Tennessee was on upset alert at Mississippi State on Tuesday.
The Bulldogs proved that in the first 15 minutes of the game, running up a nine-point lead, but the Volunteers settled into the game. After tying at 23 at the half, Tennessee went 8 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half and scored 47 points in the final 20 minutes to win 70-59 on the road.
“That’s a great team character win for our team. The fact that we had two starters out and started the game with a lineup that I probably never practiced together,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I thought after the eight minutes mark, Zakai Zeigler really settled down and played terrific, playing 40 minutes the way that he did. Our team had great respect for Mississippi State because other than that game at our place when we could have beaten anybody in the country, (Mississippi State) has been in every game.”
The Vols (15-3, 5-1 SEC) shot 2 of 15 from 3-point range in the first half as the Bulldogs clamped down on Tennessee but it was a different story in the final 20 minutes. Zeigler had 14 points in the second half and Tennessee doubled its production from the first half.
Mississippi St. (12-6, 1-5) improved on its first half total as well. The pace played out of the Bulldogs’ realm, however, as the defense-minded Mississippi St. couldn’t keep up with the hot-shooting Vols.
Tennessee’s Julian Phillips had 18 points and 11 rebounds while Josiah-Jordan James finished with 13. Tennessee shot 23 of 51 (45%) from the field in the game with a 42% 3-point night. The Vols were also big from the line, making 14 of 15.
After turning the ball over 11 times in the first half, the Vols finished with 17 turnovers for the game.
“I just tried to be more aggressive, find my shots and rebound the ball better,” Phillips said. “We didn’t have (Vescovi or Key) two of our leading scorers, so we were missing some points there. It was next man up.”
Mississippi St. shot 19 of 57 from the field as offensive struggles continue. The Bulldogs made 7 of 26 from 3-point range and had 14 of 22 from the free-throw line.
Shakeel Moore scored a career-high 20 points for the Bulldogs, making all eight of his free-throw attempts, and Tolu Smith had 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Tennessee won the rebounding battle 39-31.
“We’re a good basketball team. If we stick together and stay the course, we’ll have opportunities to win games in the league this year,” Mississippi State coach Chris Jans said. “It’s a big challenge that we all face. It starts with me and my staff to set the mood and the vibe, stay hungry, continue to work and believe. That will be the big focus for us heading into the Florida game.”
Tennessee: After a rough loss to Kentucky at home last week, the Vols needed a bounce back. It wasn’t easy, but the second-half answer spoke volumes, overcoming a nine-point deficit.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs continue to slide having lost six of the last seven games, but that isn’t the full story. Mississippi St. continues to make progress in year one under Jans.
Tennessee travels to LSU on Saturday.
Mississippi State hosts Florida on Saturday night.