Tennessee basketball came out slow against Syracuse but used a late first half push to take a lead that it would never relinquish on its way to an 73-56 Maui Invitational opening win.
Dalton Knecht carried Tennessee’s offense while it struggled in the first half and Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James pulled the Vols through when Knecht went down with an injury in the second half.
Dalton Knecht Bails Out The Offense In First Half
For the first time this season, Tennessee’s offense looked like its offense from a season ago in the first half. The Vols started slow and it continued for much of the half. Santiago Vescovi picked up two quick fouls which didn’t help but so much went wrong offensively for Tennessee.
Tennessee missed three uncontested layups, turned the ball over seven times and went five-of-10 from three-point range. Things were clunky at times and Syracuse’s 7-foot-4 center Naheem McLeod gave Tennessee all sorts of issues at the rim.
But Tennessee’s defense kept them in the game. That was like last year. What wasn’t was Dalton Knecht putting the offense on his back.
Knecht opened the game’s scoring and helped Tennessee’s offense prod along for the first 10 minutes. With Tennessee trailing by eight, Knecht exploded. The wing scored six straight with a three-pointer and an old fashioned three-point play on consecutive possessions.
The Northern Colorado transfer then scored five points in the half’s final three minutes as Tennessee took a lead into the second half thanks to Knecht’s 15 points on three-of-five three-point shooting.
The transfer added only two points in the second half while spending much of it on the bench with cramps. His teammates picked him up.
Tennessee Takes Control Around Halftime
Knecht was keeping Tennessee in the game but the Vols still trailed coming out of the under four timeout in the first half. Tennessee took control of the game in the next eight minutes.
The Vols finished the first half on a 9-1 run sparked largely by two Knecht baskets. Tennessee did what few college teams do either, flawlessly executing a two-for-one and ending the half 4-0 in the final 45 seconds.
The run gave Tennessee a five-point halftime lead despite trailing for the majority of the first half. Then Tennessee came out on fire to start the second half with Josiah-Jordan James hitting a triple on the Vols’ first possession of the second half and Jonas Aidoo getting three the old fashioned way on the ensuing possession.
Tennessee’s run around the half saw them turn a three-point deficit until an 11-point lead. The Vols didn’t build on it the way they could have after that allowing Syracuse to climb back into the game.
But the run around the half completely changed the dynamic of the game and the Cuse never took the lead after it and trailed for five or more the majority of the remaining game.
More From RTI: Freddie Dilione Out For Maui Invitational
Tennessee Deals With Multiple Injuries
The injury bug bit Tennessee early and multiple times in its Maui Invitational opener. It started just a few minutes into the game when sophomore big man Tobe Awaka suffered a right ankle injury that he didn’t return from.
The Vols are thin in the interior and Awaka’s injury thrust freshman center JP Estrella into his first big time action of the season. Estrella responded, particularly in the first half when he scored two points, grabbed three offensive rebounds, assisted on a Knecht triple and held up on the defensive end.
Tennessee went small instead of leaning on Estrella in the second half but the freshman’s minutes were big given they were his first in a big game and helped keep the Vols afloat while struggling.
The second injury was less serious but more integral to the flow of the game. Knecht stayed down after missing a layup with 10:32 left in the game. Tennessee’s star was only cramping up and it was nothing serious but it did keep him sidelined for 8:08 before he returned.
Tennessee led by three when Knecht went down and led by seven when he returned. Against an average Syracuse team, that isn’t overly impressive. But Knecht was carrying the Vols for much of the game’s first half.
It was nota given Tennessee would figure things out offensively without Knecht but they did. Credit to super seniors Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi for making a number of winning plays down the stretch.
Tennessee resumes play at the Maui Invitational tomorrow at 8 p.m. ET against the winner of the Gonzaga-Purdue game.