Calipari on the Vols’ starting five: ‘They haven’t had that’

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee fifth-year senior guard Josiah-Jordan James scored a career-high 26 points Saturday night as the No. 5 Volunteers defeated No. 10 Kentucky 103-92 inside Rupp Arena.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee fifth-year senior guard Josiah-Jordan James scored a career-high 26 points Saturday night as the No. 5 Volunteers defeated No. 10 Kentucky 103-92 inside Rupp Arena.

Now that was a starting five.

The Tennessee Volunteers had become the Dalton Knecht Show in recent games, which was not a concern until Jonas Aidoo, Josiah-Jordan James and Zakai Zeigler combined to go 3-of-17 from the floor during last Tuesday night's 63-59 home loss to South Carolina. The No. 5 Vols (16-5, 6-2 SEC) bucked that image brilliantly Saturday night in a 103-92 triumph over No. 10 Kentucky (15-6, 5-4) inside Rupp Arena, leading wire to wire and setting a program record for the most points scored in a road game against a ranked opponent.

"We talked after the South Carolina game for an hour-and-a-half or two hours, and we talked about how we felt we put a lot of pressure on DK and how it's not going to work like that," said Zeigler, who scored or assisted on 60 of the 103 points, after Saturday's win. "We know DK is a good player and that we need him to be aggressive, but when times get hard, we can't just sit around and watch him. He'll get burned out if that's the case, and we won't have him for the end of games.

"We have to be just as aggressive as him, and we did that."

James and Zeigler each tallied a career-high 26-point performance, with James playing turnover-free in his 31 minutes and with Zeigler dishing out 13 assists to become the first Tennessee player in at least a quarter-century to have 25 points and 10 assists in the same game. Aidoo produced quite the thorough evening with 11 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots, while Santiago Vescovi's 11-point showing contained a 3-of-4 effort from 3-point range.

Knecht's 16 points Saturday night were half of the 31.8 he had averaged in his six previous games, but perhaps Tennessee's balanced effort helped explain how the graduate transfer from Northern Colorado calmly sank all five of his free throws. Knecht was a combined 9-of-17 from the line in the two games before the Lexington trip.

"You want to guard him, but you also know that their other guys can play and that they're dangerous," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "They had five guys in double figures, and they haven't had that. Zeigler's capable. Vescovi's capable. Obviously James and the way he played tonight is capable."

Knecht scored 42.4% of Tennessee's points in an 85-79 win at Georgia on Jan. 13 and scored 45.9% in an 85-66 downing of Florida three days later, when he racked up a career-high 39. Last Tuesday, however, he accounted for 52.5% of the total as the Vols failed to amass 60 points for the first time this season.

Which sounded the alarms.

"I don't even know why we got to that point," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "We haven't been that kind of team."

Said James: "Coach had been harping on that the past three days. It will be big for us moving forward."

Nobody on Tennessee's team needed a bigger evening than James, the fifth-year senior guard who will finish his career along with Vescovi with 3-2 records inside Rupp Arena. Aidoo, Vescovi and Zeigler had up-and-down outings recently, but it seemed like Knecht's eruptions were coming at the expense of James, who was averaging 2.8 points per game while Knecht was averaging his 31.8.

Of course, it didn't seem like that at all Saturday night.

"The start of SEC play was tough for me, but the biggest thing is just winning," James said. "We set out a goal at the beginning of the season to win the SEC regular season, but now we have two losses that we shouldn't have realistically lost. Our energy before this game was key and huge."

Odds and ends

Tennessee's 11 wins over Kentucky the past nine seasons under Barnes are five more than any other team, with Auburn and Kansas next with six apiece. ... Vescovi's 314 career made 3-pointers rank eighth in SEC history. ... Tennessee's 11-point win matched its largest at Kentucky, with the Vols winning 28-17 in 1916, 66-55 in 1979 and 82-71 in 2021. ... Freshman guard Cameron Carr played three minutes and four seconds Saturday after playing just 38 seconds in Tennessee's first seven league games.

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