KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s defense stopped its slump and continued Arkansas’ slide.
Freshman Santiago Vescovi had 20 points and eight assists before fouling out to set career highs in both categories as Tennessee trounced Arkansas 82-61 on Tuesday to hand the Razorbacks their third straight loss.
Arkansas (16-8, 4-7 Southeastern Conference) had its lowest point total of the year and shot a season-low 30.6% to fall by double figures for the first time all season. The Razorbacks had been one of only nine Division I teams to avoid any double-digit defeats.
That represented a remarkable resurgence for a Tennessee defense that had allowed Mississippi State to shoot 57.1% and Kentucky to shoot 54.3% in its last two losses. Tennessee entered the night having lost four of its last five games in part because it was struggling to prevent teams from driving to the basket.
“We watched a lot of video,” Vescovi said. “As a team we understood what our weaknesses are. It was mainly just the drives. We had to shrink more of the floor. That’s something we really talked about before the game, and that really helped us.”
Tennessee also limited Southeastern Conference scoring leader Mason Jones to a single basket.
Jones was held out of the starting lineup, though he sat for less than three minutes before taking the floor. He scored just nine points – less than half his season average of 20.5 – and shot 1 of 10 from the field.
“We didn’t start him tonight to try to give us some pop off the bench,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “We haven’t played very well to start games. We’ve been playing uphill. We played uphill again. Last year, he didn’t start for the last eight games. Same reason I’m assuming, that the prior coaching staff wanted to try to get some pop off the bench. We’re struggling on both ends of the floor right now, for sure.’’
Television cameras showed Jones getting angry at Musselman during a timeout in an overtime loss at Missouri on Saturday.
Both teams were at less than full strength for this one.
Arkansas played a third straight game without second-leading scorer Isaiah Joe, who underwent arthroscopic debridement surgery on his right knee February 4 because of recurring inflammation.
Tennessee (14-10, 6-5) played a fourth consecutive game without starting guard Josiah-Jordan James, who has a groin injury. Tennessee starting forward John Fulkerson played through an illness.
The Vols did a much better job of adapting to their circumstances.
Tennessee had five players score in double figures while Arkansas went through prolonged stretches without making a basket. Jordan Bowden had 16 for Tennessee. Fulkerson had 14, Yves Pons scored 12 and Olivier Nkamhoua had 10.
“From start to finish, we were pretty good on both ends,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
Jimmy Whitt Jr. scored 19, Desi Sills had 11 and Reggie Chaney added 10 for Arkansas.
Arkansas went 7 minutes, 44 seconds without a basket during one stretch in the first half. The Razorbacks followed that up by going 8:40 without a basket in the second half.
Midway through the first half, Arkansas had an equal number of turnovers (nine) and field-goal attempts. The Razorbacks trailed 40-23 at halftime and never cut the margin below 15 the rest of the way.
“Tennessee played with more energy and played harder, and we didn’t fight when things became difficult,” Musselman said.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks dearly miss Joe. In its first two games without him, Arkansas lost in overtime to No. 11 Auburn and Missouri. This defeat wasn’t nearly that close as the Razorbacks fell three games below .500 in SEC competition, a steep fall for a team that raced to a 14-2 start this season. Arkansas entered the night a respectable 38th in the NET rankings, which are used as an evaluation tool in the NCAA Tournament selection process. But it’s tough to imagine the Razorbacks earning an NCAA bid if they don’t finish .500 or better in SEC play.
Tennessee: With James injured and Fulkerson playing through an illness Tennessee got big performances from a couple of freshman reserves. Gaines had six points and a career-high seven rebounds, and he also guarded Jones at times. Nkamhoua scored in double figures for just the third time.
Arkansas wasn’t the only team to shuffle its starting lineup. Tennessee junior Jalen Johnson made his first career start and scored four points in 20 minutes before fouling out.
With the shot clock running down, Fulkerson had his first 3-point attempt in 100 career games. He missed.
Arkansas host Mississippi State on Saturday.
Tennessee visits South Carolina on Saturday.
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
Follow Steve Megargee at https://twitter.com/stevemegargee