When you play Tennessee basketball, you gotta grit your teeth a little bit more.
Elbows get scraped more often, bumps and bruises start to hurt a little bit more, you get fatigued earlier. If you’re Duke’s Kyle Filipowski, you might get a cut under your eye less than 10 minutes into the game.
And the worst part for you?
That’s just how Tennessee likes it.
They see physicality as a challenge, rather than a hindrance. You wanna get position in the post? You better earn it, or the Volunteers will wear your ass out for 40 minutes, just like they did the Duke Blue Devils in their 65-52 victory in the Round of 32 on Saturday.
“The way you keep up with us is if you can just taking those hits and keep playing that tough game for 40 minutes,” said senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua postgame. “Because we come to play for 40 minutes, and we’re going to bring them down to the mud for 40 minutes. It’s tough, and some guys can hang and some guys can’t.”
You get a little dirty when you play Tennessee, and that benefits the Vols. The senior-laden team came into their game with a very young Duke team wanting to force Duke into playing their style, and it worked to perfection. Duke shot 27% from deep and turned the ball over 15 times for 18 Tennessee points, a plan perfectly crafted because of the physicality of Tennessee.
“We’re a tough, hard-nosed team. That’s how we play everybody,” said senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua. “We knew that if we come in and apply more pressure and be tough and physical, then they would have to deal with it. What we were saying before the game the whole time is we were going to bring them into the mud with us and make them play a tough, hard-nosed game and see if they were ready for it.”
More from Nkamhoua: Nkamhoua said. “You want to get people playing at your pace. It just guarantees us that we’re going to be in our element. We play through defense and then we figure it out on the offensive end.”
Figuring it out was exactly what the Volunteers did, with Nkamhoua leading the charge. The Finnish forward was the star of the game, scoring 27 points, 23 of which came in the second half and going 10-13 from the field, giving the Volunteer offense life when they needed it to pair with their defense. Nkamhoua put a sluggish first half behind him in order to spark the Volunteers and lead them to a win. “I was a little bit antsy because I didn’t get to play in the first half, so I just came in ready to play,” Nkamhoua said. “I had fresh legs. I feel like that gave me a little bit of extra edge.”
The Volunteers normally aren’t that great of a shooting team; their 33% shooting from deep places them 219th in the country headed into March. Against Duke? The Volunteers shot almost 43% from three point range. Finding a way to win has been the Volunteers mantra for the last month, since starting point guard Zakai Zeigler was lost for the season with a torn ACL. However, one of the benefits of having such an upperclassman-heavy squad is for moments like losing Zeigler.
The experience on the roster helps lead the team. We discussed Nkamhoua, but guard Santiago Vescovi was massive with 14 points, five assists and two steals. Backup big man Jonas Aidoo played critical minutes while starting center Uros Plavsic got into foul trouble early. These waves of upperclassmen are built for March, and it comes from the belief they have in each other. “I think these guys, they certainly believe in each other,” Volunteers head coach Rick Barnes said. “We’ve got different guys and they’ve all done it at different points in time. I do believe these guys have a terrific belief in each other, and they respect each other at the highest level.”
The Volunteers will be heading to Madison Square Garden for the Sweet 16, a place Barnes hasn’t been since the 2018-2019 season. They’ll face the winner of Farleigh Dickinson and Florida Atlantic, but whoever wins will need to be ready for a battle.
Because you better believe these Vols will be ready.