Phillips leads Vols past USC and into Battle 4 Atlantis final against Kansas

Tennessee freshman forward Julian Phillips came of age Thursday afternoon in the Bahamas, powering the No. 22 Volunteers past Southern California 73-66 in overtime and into Friday night's Battle 4 Atlantis championship pairing against No. 3 Kansas.

Phillips had neither dazzled nor disappointed through his first four games with the Vols, averaging 8.8 points and 4.5 rebounds, but he created his own Thanksgiving feast with 25 points and eight rebounds. The 6-foot-8, 198-pound, five-star signee from Blythewood, South Carolina, made 7-of-13 shots from the floor, including his lone 3-point attempt, and was 10-of-12 from the free-throw line.

"He is an impact player, and he can impact a game in so many ways," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said on a Zoom call. "We can play him anywhere on the court. He can bring the ball down. He'll do anything, and the fact he's playing with some guys who are committed to defense has helped him a lot.

"It will be interesting to see how he reacts tomorrow."

Kansas advanced in the first Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal Thursday with a 69-68 topping of Wisconsin that also required overtime. The Vols and Jayhawks will hook up for the third time in the past four seasons at 7:30, with ESPN televising the game.

"I've been here for four years, and in my first two years, we split with Kansas," Vols senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua said after his 12-point, six-rebound performance against the Trojans. "We went there, and they beat us, and they came to us, and we beat them. This is kind of a tiebreaker for a lot of our guys. We know they're coming in as the reigning national champions and that they have great players and experience. It's going to be a great matchup."

When Barnes was asked about the title showdown, he said, "I think it will be a quick game. I think it will be up and down. They like to run, and we like to run, but both teams have had to grind it out to get to where we'll be playing tomorrow."

Tennessee's win over USC tipped off just 16 hours after the Vols routed Butler 71-45 in Wednesday night's final quarterfinal. The Vols didn't display any hangover symptoms, taking a 20-13 lead near the midway mark of the first half on a Phillips layup and increasing their advantage to 37-29 on Jahmai Mashack's three-point play with 1:13 before intermission.

The Trojans, however, pulled within 37-34 at the break and opened the second half on a 9-2 run to snag a 43-39 lead.

USC was still up four at 62-58 with three minutes left in regulation, but a Nkamhoua layup with a minute remaining knotted the score at 62-62, and each team missed 3-point attempts in the final seconds to result in the five extra minutes. A Santiago Vescovi 3-pointer at the 1:45 mark of overtime put Tennessee ahead to stay at 69-66, with Zakai Zeigler sealing the victory by going 4-for-4 at the line in the final 25 seconds.

The Trojans were shut out for the final three minutes of regulation and scored four points in overtime, when they turned the ball over six times against a defense headed by Vescovi and Zeigler.

"Those two guys just keep us in games," Barnes said.

Yet the star of Thursday's show was Phillips, who played 38 of the possible 45 minutes.

"One thing we loved about him in the recruiting process was his versatility," Barnes said. "He was always very good in that mid-range area, and we believe in the mid-range area. Some people don't, but we do, and his biggest improvement right now is just in his cardio toughness, because he was tired.

"We were looking at him thinking we needed to get him out, and we asked him. We were more concerned about him breaking down on the defensive end, but that's where he's improved the most."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.