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Tennessee guard Santiago Vescovi passes in between two LSU defenders during Saturday's SEC opener for both teams at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. Vescovi scored 18 points, all on 3-point shots, in his college debut, but the Vols lost 78-64. / AP photo by Brianna Paciorka

This story was replaced at 9 p.m. on Jan. 4, 2020.

KNOXVILLE — Like any opener, Tennessee's men's basketball game Saturday brought out a lot of fans who were excited to see what the team's newcomer could bring to the table.

And Santiago Vescovi, the Volunteers' midseason signee who officially was cleared to play Friday afternoon, scored 18 points in his first game, a result of six made 3-point baskets.

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Tennessee guard Santiago Vescovi reaches between his legs in pursuit of a loose ball alongside LSU guard Javonte Smart during Saturday's game in Knoxville. / AP photo by Brianna Paciorka

But Saturday's opponent was LSU, the reigning regular-season champion of the Southeastern Conference, and the Tigers won 78-64 in the 2019-20 SEC opener for both teams. There was no easing into the season for the 6-foot-2, 188-pound Vescovi, no opportunity to get a few games under his belt before the bigger contests began.

The loss was the Vols' fourth in five games and dropped them to 8-5 overall and 0-2 without senior point guard Lamonte Turner, who's out for the season due to injury.

Vescovi — who started — showed he could be a solid pickup for the Vols, though. The 18 points matched Yves Pons for the team's scoring honors, despite going 0-of-4 inside the 3-point line. He showed some playmaking ability, handing out four assists, but struggled with turnovers, giving the ball away nine times against the athletic Tigers (9-4).

"I felt confident," Vescovi said. "I know I need to get rid of those turnovers. I still don't have a very good feeling about the game because it was a tough loss. I don't really care about how I played — I just care about whether we won or lost. All this is about is the team."

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Tennessee forward John Fulkerson shoots as LSU's Trendon Watford defends during the SEC opener for both teams Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. / AP photo by Brianna Paciorka

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes is willing to live with the results, positive and negative. It's not like the Vols have a lot of other options.

"He's going to make some mistakes, and we're going to live with it because he's trying to start the season in the middle of the season and his first game was a conference game," Barnes said. "There's no doubt that everybody saw that he's got a chance to be a terrific player, and he's a guy who wants to distribute the ball. He'll learn. He'll watch tape. If he's anything like how he was watching tape to learn our offense as he is after a game and learning from (watching that game), then he's going to be a good basketball player. He really is.

"We need everybody. We need that. He fouled with eight seconds left on the shot clock at a critical time, and then we gave up an offensive rebound right after that. Those are the plays when you're dealing with a lot of young players playing critical minutes for you — it's them understanding that every possession counts.

"And that's what these guys will continue to learn. We feel like in some ways we've had to start over so many different times this year, but I really like these guys. I appreciate our fans more than ever because we're going to need them, particularly when you've got a young group of guys, and (the fans) were terrific today. We need them to stay with us, which I fully expect them to do because this group of guys we're going to watch them grow up just like the guys who left a year ago."

The last part is what should be encouraging to Tennessee. The departed group won 15 games in Barnes' first season and 16 a year later, but those numbers jumped to 26 and 31 in their final two seasons, both ending in NCAA tournament appearances.

Vescovi provided some level of hope, though, in a season that appeared lost after Turner announced he was having surgery. That's all this program has to lean on with a roster of nine active scholarship players, five of them freshmen. It has to hope senior Jordan Bowden can find his shooting stroke (he was 1-for-12 Saturday); it has to hope Pons and John Fulkerson can continue to be effective doing what they do.

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Tennessee guard Santiago Vescovi drives past LSU guard Marlon Taylor as teammate Yves Pons looks on during Saturday's SEC opener for both teams at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. Pons and Vescovi tied for the team lead in scoring with 18 points each. / AP photo by Brianna Paciorka

There are going to be good performances down the road with this team, but there also will be struggles. Vescovi will be a mixed bag as he learns on the fly, and freshman Josiah-Jordan James, who scored 11 of his 15 points in the first half but played more passively in the second, will have to continue to look for his shot.

This newest version of the Tennessee men's basketball team has had a week of practice and one game together. It will get better as the season rolls on.

"Things have changed," Pons said. "It'll take time to figure things out, but we'll figure it out. We lost Lamonte, but we got Santiago. We'll figure it out.

"We need to get better, but we'll be fine."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.

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