Vols hoping their new Madison Square Garden memory is nothing like their last one

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes watches his players go through practice Wednesday inside Madison Square Garden in preparation for Thursday night's NCAA tournament game against Florida Atlantic.

Madison Square Garden is oozing with history.

Willis Reed's heroics in leading the New York Knicks to the 1970 NBA championship. Joe Frazier outlasting Muhammad Ali the following year in "The Fight of the Century." The home of the Big East tournament since 1983. Visits from Pope John Paul II in 1979 and from Pope Francis in 2015.

It has even housed four Democratic National Conventions and one Republican National Convention.

Yet on Dec. 7, 2021, the 20,789-seat facility that opened in 1968 was oozing with missed shots by the Tennessee Volunteers in a 57-52 overtime loss to Texas Tech.

"That's definitely a game we don't want to go back to," Vols senior guard Santiago Vescovi said Wednesday afternoon in a news conference. "It was an awful shooting night for both teams. It was not a pretty game."

Tennessee has returned to Madison Square Garden for Thursday night's NCAA tournament East Region semifinal pairing against Florida Atlantic (9 on TBS) looking for much better shooting results compared to its visit early last season. The Vols made just 19-of-71 shots (26.8%) from the floor against the Red Raiders, including a wretched 6-of-39 clip (15.4%) from 3-point range.

They were actually 2-of-30 from long distance (6.7%) until warming in the final two minutes of regulation and in the overtime, and that evening's misfiring extended into an 8-of-16 showing from the free-throw line.

"It's a game we've tried to forget about," Tennessee senior guard Josiah-Jordan James said.

The Vols (25-10) are coming off a 65-52 win over Duke last Saturday, when their overpowering of the younger Blue Devils overshadowed Tennessee's 9-of-21 performance (42.9%) on 3-point tries.

FAU is averaging 36.7% on 3-point attempts, an accuracy rate that would lead the Southeastern Conference. The Owls will be challenging Tennessee's stingy 3-point defensive rate of 26.4% that leads the nation.

"They like to get a lot of threes up and play at the rim," James said. "They don't really like playing in the mid-range area, and one team that is like that in our conference is Alabama. They like to play a similar style on offense.

"We have to go back and learn from what we did well against Alabama and hopefully apply it to this game."

The Owls (33-3) advanced past Memphis and Fairleigh Dickinson on the NCAA tournament's opening weekend despite shooting 28.6% and 29.0% from long range.

"We haven't shot the ball well in seven or eight games, and that's typically what we've hung our hat on," FAU coach Dusty May said Wednesday. "Fortunately, our guys believe we can find a way to win, because we're scrappy and gritty and we rebound the ball.

"Also, our defense has come a long way this last month of the season."

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes isn't counting on the Owls struggling on 3-point attempts, saying, "We're playing a team right now that can lock and load that thing as quick as anybody we've played all year, and we know that anybody you play is capable of having one of those nights. I hope we can keep shooting it. I think we can. I think we're a good-shooting team."

Perhaps Thursday's outcome will be decided by the hottest team from 3-point range, and if it's Tennessee that catches fire, the Vols will have a new memory in the 55-year-old building.

"Coming here a year ago, I think they know it's a special place," Barnes said. "They certainly know what playing in the Garden is about."

  photo  Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua speaks during Wednesday's news conference in New York City previewing Thursday night's Sweet 16 matchup against Florida Atlantic. Looking on are senior guards Santiago Vescovi, left, and Josiah-Jordan James, right.

Close triumphs

FAU is 10-1 in games decided by five points or less after going 1-7 in such contests last season.

"We've done a lot of self-evaluation to figure out why," May said. "You miss a free throw. A 10% 3-point shooter throws one in. It's the randomness of winning or losing. For some reason, it was never in our favor last year, and it's been in our favor this year.

"I do think there was a belief this year after we got those first couple."

Twice as nice

Tennessee is the only SEC program to have its men's and women's programs in the NCAA tournament Sweet 16. The Vols and Lady Vols have advanced as the fourth seeds in their respective regions, with Tennessee's women playing top-seeded Virginia Tech on Saturday night in Seattle.

"The University of Tennessee is an everything school, and we try to embody that," James said. "There is a great culture not only within our basketball program but all of our programs, and we get a chance to go support other student-athletes from other sports. The culture that we have at Tennessee is second to none."

Said senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua: "We see the girls every day. We practice in the same facilities, so we know how hard they work and how much they want to be in the position that they're in. We hope that they make a run and keep going."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.