Tennessee 65, Duke 52
Tennessee punched a ticket to the Sweet 16 with a gutsy, gritty takedown of Duke in Round 2 of the NCAA tournament. Olivier Nkamhoua had the performance of his life, going 10-13 from the field--including 3-4 from three--and at one point scoring 13 straight and 17 of Tennessee's last 19 points on the way to a career-high tying 27 points (23 in the second half). The other time Nkamhoua scored 27? On January 28 against Texas. Like they say, big time players make big time plays in big time ballgames.
Significantly, Tennessee found ways to generate what has been missing since Zakai Zeigler's injury. ZZ was the SEC leader in assists (5.3/game), and he did a tremendous job of limiting UT's turnovers with just 2.3 per. In games since, nobody has stepped into the role of distributor... until today. Santiago Vescovi finished with 5 assists and Josiah-Jordan James had 4. And while Jahmai Mashack did give up 3 turnovers, the team as a whole did a fine job of protecting the ball. If Tennessee can continue to replace Zeigler's production, there's a road to the Final Four in front of them.
Speaking of that road, Tennessee will play in Madison Square Garden in the Sweet 16. How heartbreaking is it that Zakai won't get to play in front of the New York crowd? Just another reminder that "non-contact knee injury" are the crulest words in sports.
And speaking of heartbreak and cruelty, expect it to be Tennessee against the world one more time when the Vols have to put an end to either FAU or FDU's Cinderella run in New York. By the way, if you're ever asked why Vol fans tend to have a chip on our shoulder, just point them to this UT-Duke game. Between the obvious bias from the announce crew to the reversal of a clear fifth disqualifying foul on Duke's Jeremy Roach and the repeated reviews by the officials, it feels like it's always us-against-everyone. Expect the Knights or Owls to be America's Favorite in New York on Thursday.
One last note: I've seen a lot of criticism post-game of Uros Plavsic--things like he didn't do anything, he was out there with 0 points and 4 fouls. Look, Uros wasn't out there to score. Uros had one clear job to do today, and that was to set the physical tone early. And he did that job perfectly. There was one really bad foul on the three-point shot that Uros could've done without. But otherwise he played the role of enforcer. There's a reason Barnes left Plavsic in the game with 0 points, and it wasn't because he tought Uros was going to catch fire offensively like Olivier did.