PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Rick Barnes believes his Tennessee squad is a good offensive team, even if the 22nd-ranked Volunteers haven’t consistently shown it yet during the opening weeks of the season.
Good thing the defense is in strong form.
Santiago Vescovi scored all 13 of his points after halftime and sparked the clinching run that helped Tennessee beat Butler 71-45 on Wednesday night in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Vescovi hit three 3-pointers during a 17-1 run that blew the game open for the Volunteers (3-1), who shot 53% after halftime. Tennessee led 28-23 at the break, then responded when Butler got within a basket with the big run that pushed the Vols to an 18-point lead midway through the second half.
“I do think we were pretty in tune with our (defensive) scouting report,” Barnes said.
There were two key stretches where Tennessee began to assert control. First came at the the end of the first half, with the Volunteers holding the Bulldogs (3-2) without a basket for the final 5:05 before the break as they took a 28-23 lead.
Even more costly was the seven second-half minutes that Tennessee locked up the Bulldogs in the second half, this one during the 17-1 run.
“For the most part, it’s just their denial,” Butler guard Eric Hunter Jr. said. “They’ll deny and push you out pretty far to about 30 feet or halfcourt even sometimes. I think that was it, that kind of got us out of our stuff.”
Julian Phillips added 11 points for Tennessee, which had to go without leading scorer Josiah-Jordan James (13.7) due to soreness in his left knee. He had an offseason procedure on that same joint.
Jayden Taylor scored 18 points with four 3s to lead the Bulldogs (3-2), who shot just 31.9%. No other player reached double figures on a roster that is shorthanded by early injuries and got into early foul trouble, such as big man Manny Bates playing just 4:38 of the first half with two fouls.
“We weren’t able to bounce back the way we needed to in terms of execution in the second half,” coach Thad Matta said. “And then we tied our offense to our defense, and we weren’t as effective defensively as we needed to be.”
Butler: The Bulldogs are playing the the first season of Matta’s second stint as coach, the other coming in 2000-01. They had shot 53.1% through the first four games but had a much tougher go of it this time, particularly from behind the arc. After entering shooting 36.6% on 3s, the Bulldogs went just 5 of 23 in this one — including 1 of 10 after halftime.
“It snowballed on us,” Matta said.
Tennessee: The Volunteers opened the season at No. 11 in the AP Top 25 before a stumble against Colorado in Nashville on Nov. 13. They responded by beating Florida Gulf Coast by 31 points, and pulled away for another lopsided win despite missing a key player.
THE KEY SPURT
Leading just 36-34, Phillips got the run started with a driving basket, then Vescovi followed with a 3 from the left wing off an inbounds pass.
That got Vescovi going. He followed with another 3 from the right corner off a kickout feed from Zakai Zeigler, then hit a third from the right wing off another feed from Zeigler.
By the time Vescovi jumped Eric Hunter Jr.’s pass and scored on a runout, Tennessee led 53-35 with 9:15 left.
“What got me going was my teammates, no doubt,” Vescovi said. “The energy they brought on the defensive end is just something contagious, that gets everybody going.”
Butler: The Bulldogs will face BYU, which lost to Southern California in the first round, in Thursday’s consolation bracket.
Tennessee: The Volunteers advanced to Thursday’s semifinals to face USC, which beat BYU in Wednesday’s first round.
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