Vols look the part of an NCAA tourney No. 1 seed in rout of Texas

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior guard Josiah-Jordan James goes up for two of his 14 points during Saturday night’s 82-71 victory over Texas at the Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup inside Thompson-Boling Arena.

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee couldn't quite win one for coach Rick Barnes last January at Texas.

The Volunteers accomplished that task Saturday night, and convincingly.

Senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua scored a career-high 27 points and sophomore point guard Zakai Zeigler added 22 while dishing out 10 assists as the No. 4 Vols ravaged the No. 10 Longhorns 82-71 before a frenzied crowd of 21,678 inside Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee avenged its 52-51 defeat against the Longhorns last season in Austin, when Barnes was recognized for his 17 seasons at the Big 12 school.

"This meant a lot, because that was a very emotional locker room last year after the game," Zeigler said. "This one was definitely a big one for him, and it meant a lot for us, too."

Tennessee led by as many as 22 points in the second half before improving to 18-3. The Vols are expected to move into the Associated Press top three for the first time since holding the top spot in February 2019, and they continue to look like a potential No. 1 NCAA tournament seed, which would be a program first.

Amazingly, Saturday night was just the second top-10 showdown in Thompson-Boling's 35-year history.

"They've got a lot of experience, and they've got guys who can play inside and a number of different guys who are physical," said Texas interim head coach Rodney Terry, who was an assistant under Barnes when Texas reached the 2003 Final Four. "We always had physical guys who could rebound, and we also had a really good point guard with T.J. Ford. Rick has a point guard who is playing well and is a really good player.

"They have all the ingredients of being a Final Four team."

Tennessee shot 30-of-54 from the floor for a 56.6% clip, with Nkamhoua 12-of-15 and Zeigler 7-of-10. Josiah-Jordan James scored 14 points and Santiago Vescovi 12 for the Vols, who outrebounded the Longhorns 38-23.

Delighted Vols students shouted "UT Junior" at Texas players in the waning moments of the Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup, but Barnes had his own views on Terry's Final Four comments.

"I would say that about his team," Barnes said. "At this point in time of a season, I'm not sure any team has separated itself. There is a lot of basketball left, and I heard (ESPN analyst) Jay Bilas say that a year ago today, North Carolina had the exact same record as they have right now, and they got it turned around and got it going.

"Kansas a year ago today got beat (by Kentucky) by a lot of points, just like Alabama did (at Oklahoma) today. There is a long way to go, but I do love this team, and I think we have a chance to be as good as we want to be."

A James 3-pointer put Tennessee up 9-5 less than five minutes into the game, but the Longhorns pulled into a 17-17 deadlock at the midway mark of the half. That's when the Vols used a 9-0 run to take control, with a Vescovi 3-pointer and a James jumper keying that surge.

Tennessee took its first double-digit lead at 33-23 on a Zeigler layup and free throw with 2:52 before halftime, and he would add a 3-pointer and two more free throws to provide the Vols their largest first-half advantage at 38-24 at the 1:48 mark.

"We're the type of team where we don't stop," Nkamhoua said. "We're going to keep coming at you and keep coming at you, and it's going to start on defense. We're going to keep applying pressure and keep going at teams, and unless you can take that and can hit us back when we hit you, we're going to win."

Zeigler continued the onslaught in the second half, as his 3 with 15:42 to play put the Vols up 52-35. He made consecutive layups to give Tennessee a 58-39 lead and then found Vescovi open for a 3 that made it 61-39 with 13:50 remaining.

Texas, which was led by 21 points by Sir'Jabari Rice, would slice that deficit to 10 but never got back within single digits in falling to 17-4.

"I think it comes down to whether we're tough enough to embrace the daily grind and not worry about going to the Final Four or worry about going to the NCAA tournament," Barnes said. "We have to embrace the grind every single day, and it's tough. You've got to knock out all the noise around you."

Said Nkamhoua: "We haven't arrived. We haven't won the national championship. We haven't won the SEC championship or the regular-season championship. We haven't won anything."

  photo  Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua scored a career-high 27 points Saturday night as the No. 4 Volunteers whipped No. 10 Texas 82-71.

Heupel's visit

With the Vols leading 26-17 at the under eight-minute timeout, Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel and his 2023 signees took the court to a rousing ovation.

Heupel thanked the fans, urged them to come to the Orange & White spring game on April 15, and then shouted, "Let's finish this thing, and let's show the country what the best shade of orange is!"

Odds and ends

The Vols travel to Florida on Wednesday for a 7 p.m. tip on ESPN2. ... Two weeks after playing 26 minutes in the 63-56 loss to Kentucky, senior forward Uros Plavsic played just six against the Longhorns. ... New Orleans Saints cornerback Alontae Taylor was recognized during the first half.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.