Tennessee feels it has everything it takes to succeed in the NCAA tournament.
These include altruistic players, balanced scoring and a deep bank.
Josiah-Jordan James led five players in double digits with 16 points, 14 of them in the second half, which saw the ninth-ranked Volunteers pull away in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals with a 72-59 win over Mississippi State on Friday night.
“We’re at our best when we have that balance,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes. “But I also think our guys have learned when a guy has it going to bring it to him.”
The second-place Volunteers (24-7) won for the 10th time in 11 games and advanced to Saturday’s semifinals against No. 5 Kentucky, a 77-71 victor over Vanderbilt in the final quarterfinals of the night at the Amalie Arena.
Kennedy Chandler had 11 points for Tennessee despite missing time in the first and second halves after apparently suffering a right foot or ankle injury. However, he finished the game with a layup for the final win.
“He didn’t say it was his ankle. He said, ‘I got kicked.’ That’s what happens when you’re excited… under the basket,” Barnes said.
James and Chandler were joined in double digits by Zakai Zeigler (11), Brandon Huntley-Hatfield (10) and Santiago Vescovi (10) for the Vols, who led 39-37 at halftime. Zakai and Chandler combined for 14 assists with just one turnover.
“Our mentality is always the next man all year round because you never know what’s going to happen,” James said. “We’re grateful that Kennedy is okay and that he’s okay, but we had faith in anyone who was going to come in.”
Shakeel Moore led Mississippi State (18-15) by 15 points. Tolu Smith had 14 and Iverson Molina, the SEC’s third-leading scorer, finished the game with 10 points – but only one in the second half when he shot 0 for 6.
The 10th-seeded Bulldogs advanced to the quarterfinals with a 73-51 opening win over South Carolina. They lost at home to Tennessee by 19 in early February and narrowly held the game on Friday until James led a surge that helped the Vols build a double-digit lead early in the second half.
“I thought we were getting tired. … In the second half you could see that some of the guys who played a lot of minutes were really exhausted because when you play back-to-back nights it’s just difficult,” said Mississippi State coach Ben Howland. “When you’re playing a team – one of the top 10 teams in the country and fresh, didn’t play yesterday – that’s the benefit of the double bye.”
James made his first five shots after halftime, four of them with 3 points. When Chandler returned to the bench after being alerted a second time to his injury, Tennessee was 13 and in full control without the freshman guard.
Vescovi’s 3-pointer increased Tennessee’s lead to 68-54 and the next Mississippi state to survive the final five minutes was 11.
“Credit Tennessee, I think they have a very good team,” Howland said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they go deep into this NCAA tournament.”
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs missed 11 of 17 3-pointers and led just once — scoring the first basket of the game.
Tennessee: The Vols shot 50%, including 8 of 19 on 3-point attempts. They finished with 21 assists to 29 baskets.
“When we’re moving the ball and we have player motion, ball motion, that’s when we’re playing our best basketball,” Barnes said.
State of Mississippi: Probably a NIT offer. “We really want to play if we’re invited,” Howland said.
Tennessee: In the semifinals he meets Kentucky. The teams split two regular season meetings, with each winning at home.
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