Vols annihilate Aggies, back atop SEC standings

KNOXVILLE -- The Tennessee Volunteers are now the first-place Tennessee Volunteers.

Avenging their most lopsided loss of the season, the No. 5 Vols clobbered Texas A&M 86-51 Saturday night before another sellout crowd of 21,678 inside the Food City Center. Tennessee's triumph, coupled with Alabama's 117-95 loss at Kentucky, has the Vols and Crimson Tide tied atop the Southeastern Conference standings with 11-3 records with two weeks remaining in the regular season.

Tennessee would be the top seed in the SEC tournament if the season ended today due to its 91-71 win over Alabama on Jan. 20, but the Vols have the conference's toughest closing schedule with the ranked quartet of No. 14 Auburn, at No. 13 Alabama, at No. 20 South Carolina and No. 17 Kentucky. The Vols, who improved to 21-6 overall and gave Rick Barnes the 800th win of his coaching career, host Auburn on Wednesday night (7 on ESPN2).

"You look at our schedule, and every team we're going to play from here on out is going to be in the NCAA tournament," Barnes said. "It is about building and trying to improve, and our guys understand that if we're not locked in against every team we play, we can get beat and we can get beat badly."

The 800 wins by Barnes have transpired at George Mason, Providence, Clemson, Texas and Tennessee, and they are countered by only 412 defeats.

"It's really the motto of our program -- it's not about me," Barnes said. "God has truly blessed me with players and coaches and administrations and certainly with a family who has been with me every step of the way. I'm just thankful and blessed, and I know that every time I thought I could do it on my own, it didn't work."

Junior forward Jonas Aidoo dominated the Aggies (15-12, 6-8), compiling 18 points and 14 rebounds after being held to six points and five boards during the 85-69 loss in College Station on Feb. 10. Fifth-year senior guard Dalton Knecht led the Vols in scoring with 24, while junior point guard Zakai Zeigler had 14 assists to go along with nine points, nine rebounds, four steals and no turnovers.

Tennessee opened the second half on a 10-5 run to build a 47-32 lead, with an emphatic Aidoo dunk resulting in Aggies coach Buzz Williams using a time out before the first media break. A Jahmai Mashack layup off a Zeigler assist extended the bulge to 20 at 59-39 with 10:36 remaining and led to another Williams time out.

"We've got to keep playing confident out there," Knecht said. "We're one of the best teams in the nation, so we've got to go out there and prove it every single night. We've just got to keep staying consistent and take care of business."

A Knecht 3-pointer four minutes into the game provided Tennessee an 11-3 advantage, but there would be no instant runaway as Texas A&M countered with a 12-2 run and took a 15-13 lead on a Manny Obaseki jumper at the 12:23 mark. The Aggies pulled into a 24-24 tie on a Jace Carter 3-pointer with 4:36 before halftime, but Tennessee closed out the half on a 13-3 surge.

Santiago Vescovi's 3-pointer at the halftime horn put the Vols up 37-27 for the first double-digit advantage of the game.

"We did OK the first 16 minutes," Williams said of the Aggies. "I thought we were connected, and I thought we competed. In many respects, I think it was the best 16-minute stretch we've had since the last time we played them two weeks ago, but the second half was a completely different story in every possible way.

"They're really good, and they're really good here."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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