Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes had to go into diplomat mode early Sunday morning.
Minutes after his No. 6 Volunteers lost 75-70 at No. 9 Arizona in a game that had the passion and back-and-forth of an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 contest, Barnes was asked about the disparity in free throws. The Wildcats (10-1) were an impressive 24-of-27 from the line, while the Vols (9-2) were impressive to a lesser degree at 8-of-10.
"I have a lot of respect for these three officials and have known them for a long time, but I'm not real happy, because I didn't see it that way," Barnes said on a Zoom call. "I don't want to take anything away from Arizona, but we were going inside just as much as they were.
"I don't know what to say other than I thought a couple of plays at the end are going to be tough for us to look at when we look at them on tape with our players. There was certainly a wide difference in free throws tonight."
Vols sophomore guard Zakai Zeigler, who scored a game-high 21 points and was 8-of-11 from the floor, called the discrepancy "pretty frustrating" before adding: "We know we've got to stick together no matter what. We can't control the foul counts."
Arizona's inside tandem of junior forward Azuolas Tubelis and redshirt junior center Oumar Ballo were as advertised, with the 6-foot-11 Tubelis amassing 19 points and nine rebounds and the 7-foot Ballo compiling 18 and eight. The two were a combined 13-of-21 from the floor and drew nine combined fouls.
"You've got to fight force with force, and it's really the only way to do it," Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. "I thought we put a lot of foul pressure on them. To be able to get to the free-throw line and make free throws the way we did was huge."
Tennessee senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua complemented Zeigler's output with 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting, but the trio of Santiago Vescovi, Tyreke Key and Julian Phillips were a combined 5-of-27.
"We didn't have enough guys with good enough nights offensively," Barnes said, "and we had some players who have been very consistent on the defensive end have some breakdowns there at the wrong time. We are better than that."
The Vols, who have struggled with field-goal accuracy much of the season, made their first four baskets, but fifth-year senior forward Uros Plavsic was assessed a technical foul following his layup that gave Tennessee a 10-7 lead.
"I'm not happy with Uros, and I'm not happy with his antics," Barnes said of the former Hamilton Heights standout. "Honestly, I'm really tired of it, because I think it hurts our team. We want him to be hard-nosed and physical, but we don't need the antics.
"He's got to be more mature than that."
Tennessee took a 27-20 lead on a Nkamhoua 3-pointer at the 8:29 mark of the first half, but the Wildcats battled back to produce a 35-35 deadlock at halftime. Arizona continued that momentum early in the second half, opening with a 13-6 run and taking a 48-41 lead on a Courtney Ramey 3-pointer with 15:39 remaining.
The Vols got back within 66-65, but Pelle Larsson's three-point play and a short jumper by Ballo made it 71-65 and proved to be the difference.
"This is just another lesson learned," Zeigler said. "We know what we have. We didn't play well as a team altogether, but if some guys make some shots, including myself, it's a different ballgame. We know we've got a really good basketball team."
Said Barnes: "It was a high-level game, and you expected that coming in. Any time you lose, you're going to be frustrated with something. This game will help us. We had plenty of chances."
Tennessee, which has now played six games this season without senior guard Josiah-Jordan James (knee soreness), has one more test before Southeastern Conference play begins, hosting Austin Peay on Wednesday.
The freshman wall?
Phillips, who was so stellar during Tennessee's run last month to the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament title, scored two points against the Wildcats and was 0-for-5 from the floor. The 6-8, 198-pound freshman also managed just one rebound in nearly 23 minutes and had a pair of turnovers.
"He's a typical freshman who is a terrific player and a great teammate," Barnes said. "When you're struggling, you tend to think you have to do it on the offensive end as opposed to getting locked in defensively. In games like this, you're not going to get bailed out going away from the basket.
"If you're going to go in there and drive the ball, you're going to have to go through people. He drove the ball in the first half and then tried to lean away against a 7-footer who blocked his shot. He's a good offensive player, but he's got to slow down on the offensive end."
Vescovi scored nine points and now has 1,004 points in his Tennessee career. He is the 54th player in Vols history to reach the milestone and the seventh during the Barnes era, joining Jordan Bowden, Robert Hubbs III, John Fulkerson, Admiral Schofield, Lamonte Turner and Grant Williams.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org.