Vescovi, Vols blister Butler in Battle 4 Atlantis opener

Tennessee Athletics photo / Sophomore guard Jahmai Mashack made this driving layup late in the first half to give Tennessee its first lead over Butler, and the No. 22 Volunteers rolled from there for a 71-45 win in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.

Tennessee used stirring runs of 14-0 and 17-1 to demolish Butler 71-45 in Wednesday night's opening-round finale at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.

Now for the quick turnaround.

Santiago Vescovi scored 13 points to lead the No. 22 Volunteers, while Julian Phillips added 11 and Zakai Zeigler 10, but there is only a 16-hour gap between Wednesday's finish and Thursday afternoon's 1:30 tip on ESPN2 against Southern California in the second winners bracket semifinal. USC advanced with a 82-76 victory over Brigham Young.

"We've had no rhythm to our season so far," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said on a Zoom call. "We play a game, and we're off a week. We haven't played in a week until tonight, and knowing that you're coming here to play three games doesn't allow us to do what we normally like to do once we get a routine down.

"This really reminded me a lot of our Michigan State scrimmage, because it was so physical, and then all at once we were able to erupt there in the second half. We've got to come back tomorrow and try to do it again and do it again better."

Thursday's first semifinal pits defending national champion Kansas against Wisconsin.

A Pierce Thomas dunk with 14:45 remaining pulled the Bulldogs (3-2) within 36-34, but that's when the Vols (3-1) put the contest away with their 17-1 surge. Vescovi hit consecutive 3-pointers during the decisive stretch to provide Tennessee a 49-35 advantage, and layups by Jahmai Mashack and Vescovi capped the run to extend the lead to 53-35.

"We got into a rhythm, and the most important thing we've got to do is let the defense dictate our offense," Vescovi said. "I think that's what happened in the second half. We got into a rhythm on defense, and that's what got us going on offense."

Tennessee shot 48.1% from the floor (26-of-54) while holding Butler to 31.9% (15-of-47).

"The first thing we bring to a game is defense," Mashack said. "That's what we hang our hat on, and that's what we're known for."

Vols senior guard Josiah-Jordan James, who is averaging 13.7 points and 6.0 rebounds this season, sat out the game with knee soreness.

"We knew he wasn't going to be available today," Barnes said. "He'll be questionable tomorrow, and we'll decide."

A Jayden Daniels 3-pointer six minutes into the game put Butler up 10-4, and the Bulldogs would match that six-point advantage at 15-9 and 17-11. Tennessee then began chipping into the deficit before taking its first lead at 24-23 on a Mashack driving layup with 1:23 before halftime.

The Vols would take a 28-23 halftime lead on Zeigler's 3-pointer at the buzzer, which served as Tennessee's first 3-pointer following seven straight misses. Baskets in the first minute of the second half by Tyreke Key and Uros Plavsic put Tennessee up 32-23 to culminate a 14-0 run.

"The way we closed the first half was a very important part of the game," Barnes said.

Plavsic returned from an ankle injury that he suffered Nov. 13 against Colorado and started along with Key, Vescovi, Phillips and Olivier Nkamhoua.

Contact David Paschall at