Tennessee is ‘unstoppable’ during 18-0 run that dooms Creighton, puts 2-seed Volunteers into Elite Eight

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DETROIT — There were 24 seconds left on the shot clock, and all five Creighton players were back on defense. Tennessee didn’t have a numbers advantage, but it had momentum, and it had Dalton Knecht.

The Volunteers’ All-American guard took one dribble toward the basket from the right wing and promptly drew a crowd of defenders. As a swarm of Bluejays approached, he swung a quick pass to Josiah-Jordan James in the corner. Before Creighton guard Trey Alexander could complete his closeout, James launched.

His shot hit nothing but net, capping off an 18-0 run that defined Tennessee’s 92-87 win over Creighton in the Sweet 16 on Friday. In many ways, the spurt defined the Volunteers’ season.

Six days after hitting just 3 of 25 attempts from beyond the arc in an ugly, defense-oriented win over No. 7 seed Texas in the second round, the No. 2 seed Volunteers’ electric, game-changing spurt against Creighton illustrated the chameleon-esque identity which has made this group just the second in school history to reach an Elite Eight. Awaiting Sunday is a Midwest Regional final showdown with No. 1 seed Purdue.

“I think it just shows how versatile we are,” Knecht said of the contrasting styles that have challenged his team in its last two victories. “We can play defense when our shots aren’t falling and make it a physical, gritty game. We can also speed it up and play our type of basketball where we’re in transition, shooting 3-pointers, spacing the floor out and just going out and hooping and playing our type of basketball.”

Known for the last four seasons almost exclusively for their defense — a recipe that plateaued with a Sweet 16 appearance last season — the Volunteers can now win in other ways, and that versatility has them on the doorstep of the program’s first-ever Final Four appearance.

The signs were there from the beginning. 

Tennessee’s season began exactly five months before Friday night’s win over Creighton in eerily similar fashion less than 100 miles away. With fifth-year senior guard Santiago Vescovi out of the lineup, the Volunteers hit 11 3-pointers and topped Michigan State 89-88 in an exhibition showdown. It didn’t count, but it showed what might be different about these Volunteers.

Months after an ACL injury to starting point guard Zakai Zeigler zapped the Volunteers of life late in the 2022-23 season, their exhibition win over the Spartans offered a glimpse at how the 2023-24 Vols would have enough quality guards to withstand less-than-ideal circumstances and still shine offensively.

With Vescovi out again Friday due to illness, Tennessee hit 11 3-pointers and outlasted a quality foe on a court in Michigan with an impressive offensive performance

“We can win fast pace, slow pace, and I think our schedule up until this point has really helped us to win different types of ball games,” James said.

The Volunteers’ schedule has also given them a preview of what’s ahead. Tennessee fell 71-67 against Purdue in November’s  Maui Invitational. Since then, Knecht blossomed into an All-American and Zeigler has regained his form after a slow start following his return from the injury.

“For us to be able to play them again and try to rewrite that story is going to be huge,” James said. “I’m glad it was them instead of Gonzaga because we wanted that challenge. We wanted that matchup just to show our growth and our improvement. We feel like if we can beat them, we can beat anybody.”

The last time Tennessee had an offense that was close to this dynamic, it led to a Sweet 16 collision with none other than Purdue in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. That Vols team, led by Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, left something to be desired defensively and fell 99-94 in an overtime thriller as the Boilermakers drilled 15 of 31 attempts from beyond the arc. 

What makes these Volunteers different as they head into another high-stakes NCAA Tournament showdown with the Boilermakers is that they haven’t sacrificed their elite defense in to achieve their offensive evolution.

Tennessee ranks No. 28 in offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, and No. 3 in defensive efficiency entering the Elite Eight.

“I think it’s been a pretty good transition,” sophomore center Tobe Awaka said. “We just have to understand in terms of our offense that, if we’re having a bad night, we still have to keep our defensive mindset. I think it’s about holding guys accountable no matter what, whether you’re shooting well or shooting poorly. You have to get back and play defense.”

The Volunteers are still capable of producing offensive clunkers, as they showed in a sloppy 62-58 second-round victory vs. Texas. But when they do, their defense is good enough to keep them in a game. And when the offense is on, too?

Well, just look at Friday’s 18-0 second-half surge against Creighton for an example of what can happen.

“If we just put those two together,” Tennessee center Jonas Aidoo said, “I feel like we’re unstoppable.”



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