ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — When shots stopped falling and an 18-point lead nearly slipped away, Tennessee did the one thing it does best: clamp down on defense.
Tyreke Key scored 12 points, Jahmai Mashack added 11 and the fourth-seeded Volunteers withstood a late scare to hold off Louisiana-Lafayette 58-55 in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night.
The Ragin’ Cajuns (26-8) whittled an 18-point deficit to three in the final minute — creating some tense moments that included a couple of technical fouls — but the Volunteers (24-10) closed it out by forcing tough shots and making just enough free throws.
“It’s not always pretty on the offensive end for us, but we’ll find a way,” coach Rick Barnes said.
Tennessee, which lost six of 10 heading into the tournament, advanced to face fifth-seeded Duke in the East Region’s second round at the Amway Center. The Blue Devils routed No. 12 seed Oral Roberts 74-51 earlier Thursday, giving Duke coach Jon Scheyer a win in his tournament debut.
It will be the first meeting between Tennessee and Duke in the NCAA Tournament.
The Vols should hope to take much better care of the ball than they did against the Sun Belt Conference Tournament champions. They finished with 18 turnovers in the fourth game without starting point guard Zakai Zeigler, who tore a ligament in his left knee in the team’s regular-season finale. Zeigler led the Southeastern Conference with 6.5 assists a game.
“We can’t turn the ball over the way we did, and our guys know that,” Barnes said.
Tennessee made up for it on the other end, holding Louisiana to 40% shooting and forcing 14 turnovers.
“Give them credit. They’re one of the best defensive teams in the country,” ULL coach Bob Marlin said.
Barnes and Marlin had a relatively lengthy handshake after the game, discussing what happened to create a couple of testy moments during late timeouts. Both benches were hit with technical fouls, and Marlin had to be restrained.
It probably should have been somewhat expected from a game that was a defensive grind.
Louisiana-Lafayette trailed 48-30 in the second half before rallying to cut it to 50-45. The Ragin’ Cajuns made six of seven field goals over a nearly-five-minute span to surely make Tennessee nervous. Kobe Julien was the catalyst for the comeback, scoring 13 points in the second half.
But every time ULL made it a one-score game, Tennessee either answered or forced an errant shot.
Uros Plavsic added nine points, and Oliver Nkamhoua chipped in with eight for Tennessee.
Jordan Brown led the Ragin’ Cajuns with 16 points. He carried Louisiana early, scoring 12 of the team’s 19 points in the first half. His jumper in the paint tied the game at 19 with 4:43 remaining, but then the Ragin’ Cajuns went ice cold.
Tennessee swarmed him in the second half, often sending three defenders his way when he touched the ball. It worked: he scored just four points after halftime.
The Vols took control early with an 11-0 run to close the first half. They hit five of six shots while holding Louisiana-Lafayette scoreless for nearly five minutes. Plavsic’s tip-in just before the buzzer was the capper.
Despite UT’s late surge, it was an otherwise ugly opening 20 minutes. The teams combined for more turnovers (20) than field goals (19) and nearly as many steals (13) as assists (14).
It was much prettier in the end for Tennessee.
Louisiana-Lafayette: The Ragin’ Cajuns fell to 1-7 in the NCAA Tournament, with their lone win coming against fourth-seeded Oklahoma in 1992. But longtime coach Marlin could have the foundation for another run in 2024, considering he has 10 underclassmen on his roster.
Tennessee: Barnes has the Vols in the tournament for the fifth time in eight years. Only Kentucky (31) and Florida (19) in the Southeastern Conference have more NCAA Tournament wins than Tennessee (11) since 2010.
Louisiana-Lafayette needs to make sure Brown, a 6-foot-11 forward, returns for his senior season. Brown averaged 19.4 points and 8.7 rebounds this season.