DA DA DA! DA DA DA!
Not only did Tennessee hand Georgia a loss on Wednesday night, but Keon Johnson also delivered ESPN a Top-10 worthy dunk in the process.
Looking to build on their emotional win against Kentucky, the Vols returned home for a weekday matchup with Georgia, but without a familiar face.
The story of the game, even before tip-off, was Yves Pons limited participation in pregame warmups. Pons was listed as doubtful before the game and did not suit up for Tennessee against the Bulldogs.
So without Pons, and against a Georgia team who had won three straight, Tennessee would need to play as an efficient game of small ball as they have played all year to secure the win.
And that’s exactly what they did.
Tennessee started the game firing on all cylinders, hitting their first four shots on the way to a 13-5 lead. Three of those first four shots were three-pointers, giving fans a tease of what was to come throughout the game.
The Vols went on to knock down eight of 15 shots from behind the arc in the first half alone. For context, Tennessee made the same or more three-pointers in the first half on Wednesday than they had in 13 of the 17 total games played so far this season.
Not too bad.
“The game is easier when we run faster,” said Tennessee guard Josiah-Jordan James. “We have the players capable of doing that.”
The Vols would wind up making 10 of their 24 three-point shots on the night, tying their season-best from back in December.
Jaden Springer and Santiago Vescovi led the way for Tennessee in the first half offensively, combing for five made three-pointers and 23 points.
In the second half of the Kentucky game, the Vols were able to tap into a different offensive gear than we had seen so far this season. Tennessee consistently drove to the basket with aggression and did it consistently. One of the big questions heading into tonight’s game was if Tennessee would continue that offensive aggression.
And for the most part, with the two freshmen and Vescovi, they did.
As far as individual stand-outs go, Jaden Springer finished with 30 points in what can only be described as a perfect follow-up to his 23 point outing against Kentucky. Springer was 9 of 11 from the field, including having knocked down three of his four three-pointers attempted.
Springer’s 30 points recorded is his new career-high.
“I am getting more comfortable, and the team is getting more comfortable,” said freshman Jaden Springer after the game.
Tennessee found and maintained early success driving to the hoop on Georgia just like they did with Kentucky, but this time even with a smaller lineup with the removal of Pons.
“It makes it a lot easier,” said Jaden Springer, talking about Tennessee’s up-tempo pace of play. “We’re getting open shots.”
Not to be outdone, Josiah-Jordan James also recorded his career-high in points tonight, checking in right at 18.
“I think Josiah is the calming force for these guys,” said Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes following the win in Knoxville. “He gives us a fourth really good ball-handler out there. I see Josiah really starting to put together a game.”
In response to coach Barnes calling James a calming presence, Josiah himself said that he “always [tries] to encourage [the younger players]”.
“I want them to know if they’re having a tough day that it will get better,” said James. “They’re starting to get in a groove now.”
In a game that relies so heavily on the opening and closing on halves, Tennessee executed that well in the first half. Again, the game opened with Tennessee hitting 4 of 5 shots, and the Vols even closed the half on a 20 to 7 run over the final eight minutes.
But as good as the Vols offense was, especially from deep, it was their defense that was absolutely suffocating. Georgia finished with 26 first-half points on 34.5% shooting and recorded 11 turnovers.
Tennessee was flying around the court all half long and took a 44 to 26 advantage into halftime.
In the second half, Georgia came out and certainly gave the fans in Knoxville a show for the price of admission.
Georgia, who was only on a winning streak because of their hot shooting, found their stroke at halftime. Even though it wasn’t enough to come back and win, the Bulldogs exploded for 55 second-half points and cut the final winning margin to only seven points.
This was mainly thanks to Georgia freshman KD Johnson, who popped off 20 second-half points after only knocking down one bucket in the first half.
With Georgia’s second-half surge, the final box score was fairly even and fairly indicative of a single-digit game.
Tennessee had one less turnover than Georgia at 17, both teams finished with 10 assists, but Georgia did best Tennessee in the rebounding department by two.
“The frustrating part is the turnovers,” said coach Barnes after the game. “Otherwise, it’s never going to be easy.”
With Pons not playing the whole night, it definitely raises some concerns about the true status of his knee moving forward. It has been a long season since November, and Tennessee has had to deal with its fair share of injuries along the way.
Coach Barnes said after the game that he thinks Pons “is going to play” on Saturday against LSU, and that the swelling in his knee has gone down in the last few days.
However, on the court, Tennessee really didn’t seem to have any issues playing against Georgia with its smaller lineup.
The Vols did an excellent job with spacing, which created open driving lines, and the players took advantage.
Either way, the health status of Pons will be critical for Tennessee moving forward.
In terms of the second-half breakdowns, this one was a little more uncharacteristic from Tennessee. Usually, when they haven’t been able to close out a game this year, it has been because the offense is severely struggling. In this second half, that wasn’t the case.
The Vols actually out-scored themselves by one in the second half. It was the defense that allowed almost 30 more points than they did in the previous half.
This can partly be contributed to Georgia taking advantage of some of Tennessee’s mismatches, but it’s also just a better half from a hot-shooting team of late. Georgia has shot 47% from three-point range in their last three games, so it wasn’t assumed they would be cold for the entirety of the game.
Either way, Tennessee finished a strong outing with a win, and with March looming, that’s really what matters most.
Tennessee will need to build off of the hot performances of Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson moving forward, while also keeping a close eye on the health status of Vyes Pons.
Tennessee defeated Georgia by a score of 89 to 81 on Wednesday night. With the win, the Vols move to 14-4 on the year so far.
The Vols will travel to LSU to play the Tigers this Saturday at 2:00.
Hey, wait. Seriously, has anyone called ESPN about Keon being the No. 1 play on Top-10 tonight?
Photos Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics