By Jimmy Hyams
Tennessee has found a point guard.
Now it needs to find a defense.
Santiago Vescovi, who arrived in Knoxville Dec. 28 and was cleared to play Friday, hit six of nine 3-point attempts and scored a team-high-tying 18 points to provide Tennessee with a much-needed spark in the backcourt.
But it wasn’t enough to overcome the offensive onslaught of LSU, which hit 10 of 21 3-pointers and opened SEC play Saturday with a 78-64 victory at Thompson- Boling Arena before 18,653 fans.
Vescovi went from “unlikely to play’’ to “unlikely star’’ as he made a surprising start in his college debut after signing with Tennessee from the NBA Global Academy in Australia.
The product of Uruguay – the fourth International player on the team and the seventh left-hander – gave offensive punch to a team that lost Lamonte Turner for the season Dec. 21 due to a left shoulder condition.
After the Vols shot less than 35% and scored just 48 points in a Dec. 28 loss to Wisconsin, you wondered where UT’s offensive firepower would come from. Vescovi helped answer that question.
The 6-2 guard hit two 3s in the first few minutes against LSU, giving him a boost of confidence. He kept up the pace by making six from beyond the arc. And he had a team-high six rebounds.
But he also had a team-high nine turnovers and he doesn’t play defense as well as Turner.
He can, however, shoot and pass.
And he wasn’t overwhelmed by the moment. Before Saturday, he said the largest crowd he’d played before was about 7,000. He was welcomed during player introductions to a huge ovation, then he heard a loud roar when he dove to the floor to make a save.
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said he first thought about starting Vescovi the “first day on the (practice) floor. I was taken aback by what he knew of our offense. … Santiago earned the respect of his teammates the first day.’’
Barnes said he ran some plays Vescovi was familiar with.
“Our mindset after a couple of days was, it’s inevitable he’d be a starter,’’ Barnes said. “Why not do that now?’’
Barnes blamed himself for some of Vescovi’s turnovers, saying the newcomer played too many minutes (32) and was fatigued.
“He’s going to make some mistakes,’’ Barnes said. “And we’re going to have to live with them.’’
Vescovi said some of his mistakes were due to the length and athleticism of the LSU players.
Vescovi said he picked up some of the UT offense from tape sent to him by Vol.
Barnes said if Vescovi learns even more from game tape, “he’s going to be a good basketball player.’’
Led by Vescovi, Tennessee opened the game on fire, jumping to a 20-11 lead on 8 of 10 shooting from the field and 4 of 5 from three.
But LSU scrambled back, getting hot from outside and hammering the offensive boards. The Tigers eventually cut the gap and actually led at halftime 38-37 thanks to 6 of 13 shooting from beyond the arc.
Trailing at the break was not a good sign for Tennessee, which shot 9 of 13 from 3-point range in the first half.
Tennessee, which was hitting only 29.7 percent from 3-point range and averaging 5.7 made threes per game, couldn’t continue the long-range pace in the second half. UT was 4 of 13 from beyond the arc in the final 20 minutes and finished at 50 percent (13 of 26).
Meanwhile, in the second half, LSU hit 4 of 8 from outside, made 10 of 21 treys for the game and pulled away.
On defense we must learn to play every possession,” Barnes said.
Vescovi wasn’t UT’s only hot shooter. Yves Pons had 18 points and Josiah-Jordan James 15. Both were 3 of 5 on 3s.
But the disappearance of senior Jordan Bowden was a concern. UT’s leading scorer (12.9 per game) had 3 points and was 1 of 12 from the field.
How do you get Bowden back on track?
“That’s a great question,’’ Barnes said. “He was terrific in practice yesterday (Friday). Terrific. We’re not asking him to do anything he hasn’t done in the past.’’
Barnes also wants James to have more of a “scoring mentality. Every time he’s gotten into trouble, he’s turned down a shot.’’
Without Turner, Barnes needs high level performance from at least four players every game. If so, UT could have a winning record in the next five games, against Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss.
Vescovi can certainly help. But he can’t do it alone.
As Barnes said: “I still think we’ve got a chance to be a good basketball team, but we don’t have room for errors.’’