Tennessee notched its second top-15 win of the young basketball season Sunday, with the No. 7 Volunteers holding off No. 13 Maryland 56-53 at the Hall of Fame Invitational inside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
It was a game the Vols led by 21 at one point, so there were some mixed emotions afterward.
"I don't think I've ever been disappointed in losing a lead if we're doing what we need to do," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said in a news conference. "We bogged down in the second half, and we missed too many layups. We had some point-blank layups that we've got to make. The rebounding ended up about even, and that was the big difference in the second half. In the first half we were all over the offensive glass, but I'm proud of our guys.
"This was a heck of a win. We knew it wasn't going to be easy, and we're going to be in a bunch of these, so we might as well get used to it."
Tennessee's 9-1 start to the season was not secured until a rushed Jahmir Young threw up an airball at the top of the key as time expired. Young, who led the Terrapins (8-2) with 18 points, missed a short jumper in a 55-53 game with 11 seconds remaining, with Olivier Nkamhoua rebounding the miss and getting the ball to Tyreke Key.
Key made one of two free throws with 7.7 seconds left to force Maryland into the 3-point attempt.
Zakai Zeigler led Tennessee, while Key and Nkamhoua added nine and eight points, respectively, and the Vols survived a game in which Nkamhoua and five-star freshman Julian Phillips were just 4-of-23 combined from the floor. The Vols also made just 11 of 21 free throws (52.4%) and played without senior guard Josiah-Jordan James (knee soreness) and sophomore forward Jonas Aidoo (illness).
"We played really solid defense in the first half," Zeigler said. "They weren't making many shots, but we knew they were a good-shooting team and that they would come out in the second half on fire. We just had to stay solid and be ourselves."
The Vols, who thumped No. 3 Kansas 64-50 to win the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament championship in the Bahamas on Nov. 25, are off until Saturday night, when they will challenge No. 10 Arizona in Tucson at 10:30 Eastern on ESPN2.
Freshman forward Tobe Awaka, who capitalized on Aidoo's absence, connected on a layup with 11:27 remaining to give Tennessee a 45-29 lead, but the Terrapins went on a 12-0 run behind six points from Donta Scott and four from Young. A Key 3-pointer at the 6:02 mark made it 48-41 to briefly stop the bleeding, but Maryland kept slicing into the deficit to make it a two-point game on three separate occasions.
Awaka, a 6-foot-8, 250-pounder from Hyde Park, New York, logged season highs across the board with 17 minutes, seven points and eight rebounds.
"It was definitely a confidence booster," Awaka said. "I guess instincts just took over in the game. We go hard in practice all the time, and I just stepped in and did what I needed to do."
Said Barnes: "He's a rebounder, and he's a force. He earned everybody's confidence today."
The Vols were frigid out of the gate, as Uros Plavsic, Phillips and Nkamhoua missed layups within the first three minutes, but their defense was stout, as Maryland's first three possessions ended with a Plavsic block, a Key steal and a bad pass out of bounds. Zeigler then provided a spark with a jumper and an assist on a Jahmai Mashack layup that staked the Vols to a 9-2 lead.
A Key 3-pointer with 10:41 before halftime gave Tennessee its first double-digit advantage at 15-5.
Santiago Vescovi, who returned from a two-game absence due to a shoulder sprain, had a jumper and two free throws during a 6-0 spurt that put the Vols up 27-10. Vescovi then made a 3-pointer with 1:49 before halftime to provide Tennessee its largest advantage at 34-13.
Tennessee took a 34-17 lead into intermission, with Maryland shooting just 3-of-24 (12.5%) in the first half and committing 10 turnovers to just three by the Vols.
"If you look around the country right now, I'm not sure anybody has established themselves on a higher floor than everybody else," Barnes said. "It's going to be a great year of college basketball. We're still early into it, and improvement is going to be a major hurdle for everybody.
"You're never near where you need to be in December. For us, personally, I know we haven't been able to get everybody together. Once we get a chance to do that, it could be fun. Even without that, we found a way."
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