Zeigler leads short-handed Vols to ‘character win’ in Starkville

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sophomore guard Zakai Zeigler scored a career-high 24 points Tuesday night in leading the No. 9 Volunteers past Mississippi State 70-59 in Starkville.

Tennessee played Tuesday night at Mississippi State without starting guards Santiago Vescovi and Tyreke Key.

The Bulldogs could have used Zakai Zeigler being out as well.

Zeigler made his first start since mid-November and made the most of it, scoring a career-high 24 points and leading the No. 9 Volunteers to a 70-59 win. The 5-foot-9 sophomore struggled in the first 20 minutes, missing all six 3-point attempts and turning the ball over five times, but he was 4-for-4 from long range in the second half and played turnover-free.

Vescovi sat out with a shoulder injury he sustained in Saturday's 63-56 loss to Kentucky, while Key developed a fever on the trip.

"This was a great character win," Vols coach Rick Barnes told the Vol Network. "I wasn't surprised that we struggled early, because we haven't practiced that lineup all year long, but once Zakai settled down, he took the game over. He is wired to press up, but we were without 10 fouls tonight in the backcourt, so we wanted him to be a little bit softer.

"It's just hard for him to do that."

Tennessee was 8-of-9 on 3-point attempts after the break in improving to 15-3 overall and 5-1 in Southeastern Conference play. Mississippi State, which began this season with 11 straight victories, fell to 12-6 and 1-5 after losing for a 33rd consecutive time against a top-10 team.

The Vols were nursing a 50-49 lead with under seven minutes to play when Zeigler connected on a 3-pointer and made a layup for a more comfortable 55-49 advantage. An Olivier Nkamhoua 3-pointer at the 2:48 mark sealed the triumph at 64-55.

Freshman forward Julian Phillips also had a monster night for the Vols, compiling 18 points and 11 rebounds.

"I think Julian arguably had his best game," Barnes said, "and Olivier did what we needed from him."

Tennessee, which faced a nine-point deficit in the first half, next plays Saturday afternoon (4 on ESPN) at LSU.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.