Santiago Vescovi’s 22 points lead Vols past Rebels in SEC opener

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior guard Santiago Vescovi (25) scored 22 points to lead the No. 7 Volunteers past Ole Miss 63-59 Wednesday night in Oxford.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior guard Santiago Vescovi (25) scored 22 points to lead the No. 7 Volunteers past Ole Miss 63-59 Wednesday night in Oxford.

Santiago Vescovi provided the points, Jonas Aidoo grabbed the rebounds and Zakai Zeigler made the free throws as No. 7 Tennessee claimed its Southeastern Conference opener Wednesday night with a 63-59 victory at Ole Miss.

The Volunteers and Rebels staged their third consecutive hard-fought matchup, with Tennessee winning last season's contest 66-60 in overtime inside Thompson-Boling Arena and with Ole Miss prevailing 52-50 two seasons ago in Oxford. Wednesday's win was Tennessee's seventh in the past eight series meetings, and it improved this season's solid start to 11-2.

"It seems like every time we play them it's a game like this," Vols coach Rick Barnes in a news conference.

SEC openers have been anything but easy under Barnes, with Tennessee now 4-4 in his eight seasons.

"Starting with a 'W' means a lot to us," Vescovi said. "We can't overlook any team, because everybody in the SEC has a lot of potential and a lot of talent. Ole Miss played hard tonight, but we just got it done."

Vescovi scored a game-high 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting, which included a 3-for-7 clip from 3-point range. Aidoo pulled down a career-best 13 rebounds, while Zeigler was just 2-of-9 from the floor but went 9-of-10 from the free-throw line in tallying 13 points.

The Vols used an 11-2 run midway through the second half to turn a 43-41 deficit into a 52-45 advantage, with Olivier Nkamhoua's jumper at the 10:24 mark putting the Vols up 45-43 for their first lead since 6-4. Tennessee led just 59-57 entering the final minute, but the Vols used free throws by Zeigler and Vescovi that sandwiched an Ole Miss turnover to make it 63-57 with 19 seconds left.

Vescovi's 37 minutes matched a season high.

"Santi impacts a game in so many ways," Barnes said. "With what he does screening, cutting and on defense, he's just a terrific player. He impacts a game every single night even if he's not making shots."

Ole Miss (8-5) was led by Jaemyn Brakefield's 18 points. The leading scorer for the Rebels this season, junior guard Matthew Murrell at 15.6 points per game, was held to five on 1-for-11 shooting before fouling out with 1:10 remaining.

Barnes praised Jahmai Mashack for his defense on Murrell.

Tennessee faced its first halftime deficit this season, trailing 34-28 at the break after shooting 9-of-24 (37.5%). The Rebels built a 10-point lead lead on two occasions during the first 20 minutes, grabbing a 27-17 advantage on a Theo Akwuba jumper at the 8:24 mark and again at 31-21 on an Amaree Abram layup with 5:46 remaining.

"We had a lot of defensive breakdowns in that first half, maybe more than we've had all year," Barnes said. "Our switches weren't very clean. The second half was much more like we want to play defense."

The Vols do not play again until Tuesday night, when they host No. 21 Mississippi State.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.