In the vernacular head coach Buzz Williams has installed in the Texas A&M men’s basketball program, getting an opponent into “fire” means forcing it to take a shot in the last 10 seconds of the shot clock.
The Aggies did well producing those “fire” moments Saturday, but they couldn’t contain the flames coming off the hot hand of sophomore guard Santiago Vescovi in a 68-54 loss to No. 9 Tennessee at Reed Arena.
The Uruguayan scored a game-high 23 points, while hitting 6-of-10 from behind the arc. Both points and made 3-pointers were career highs.
“Some of the uncontested 3s that we gave away were late in the possession when we’re in rotation and our rotation on the backside was wrong and/or late,” Williams said. “The initial part of the rotation, we were fine at, but as the possession went on defensively ... we just began to decay.”
Vescovi found open space thanks to that defensive confusion on his first two 3-pointers of the game, both within the first five minutes. He hit his first four attempts from behind the arc. His second two began a 17-4 run that gave the Volunteers (9-1, 3-1) a 14-point lead midway through the first half.
“I was not feeling that good like in terms of rhythm of my shot,” Vescovi said. “I really don’t know what happened today. I was shooting the warmup and couldn’t make shots, and then I got into the game and they started falling, so I just started taking opportunities.”
After shooting 3-for-21 from the field in his last three games, A&M forward Savion Flagg hit a string of three consecutive 3-pointers to close out the first half. The senior finished with a team-high 12 points for the Aggies (6-4, 1-3) to go along with three rebounds.
The recent slump motivated Flagg to put in extra shooting work.
“I’ve been getting a lot more shots up outside of practice and coming into the gym, getting extra work with the coaches and getting the managers to come help me rebound,” Flagg said. “Just trying to find my touch again.”
A streak of 5-of-6 from behind the arc, including treys from Quenton Jackson and Andre Gordon, helped the Aggies stay within 37-30 at halftime.
But the Aggies never got going in the second half. Tennessee opened on a 9-4 run, which included two layups and a dunk by Yves Pons. Good ball movement opened up passing lanes down low for nine Volunteer layups and three dunks overall.
On the other end of the court, the Aggies dominated the offensive glass, outrebounding the Volunteers 14-3, but they had trouble converting on high-percentage shots. A&M made just 4 of 14 layups.
“We missed a lot of bunnies today,” Williams said. “That’s not why we lost, but you want to count on bunnies and you can’t shoot 30% on bunnies and have a chance to win against a top 10 team. That we had bunnies, it’s encouraging. That we shot 30% on bunnies is discouraging.”
The turnaround on the offensive boards was a welcome achievement for A&M a game removed from a season low three at South Carolina on Wednesday. A&M’s 15 turnovers also was a small step in the right direction.
“Coach just tells us to get the ball up on the rim and try and shoot and make,” A&M guard Jay Jay Chandler said. “That’s basically how we’re trying to limit our turnovers, just trying to get shots up, get the ball who the play is set up for, get the ball on the rim, shoot to make and just try and go from there and get offensive rebounds, just try and tide the game in our favor.”
Good defense kept Tennessee from pulling away in the second half, but the Aggies couldn’t score enough to make it count. A&M only broke a double-digit deficit once, when it trailed by nine midway through the second half.
John Fulkerson had 11 points and five rebounds for the Vols and freshman Jaden Springer had 10 points.
Jackson was the only other Aggie in double-digit scoring with 11 points.
With minutes remaining, Vescovi put a finishing touch on his performance. The sophomore hit his final 3-pointer of the day off a one-hopped scoop in the corner. Springer drove the lane and, while in the air, wildly dished the ball to Vescovi in the corner by the Tennessee bench. The pass short-hopped the sophomore, but he managed to scoop the errant pass, set himself and drain the nothing-but-net 3-pointer.
“[Vescovi] knows he wants to be good and he was playing with a lot of confidence today and every game,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said.
NOTES — A&M has scored exactly 54 points in three of its four SEC games this season, all three losses. ... Williams said he believes Tennessee might be the best team Barnes has coached and thought the future for him might hold high honors soon. “[Barnes] will be one of the final coaches that will be inducted into the hall of fame while he is still coaching. He’s going to end up being like [Bob Huggins] and [Bill Self] and [Tom Izzo]. He’ll be one of the last guys that is in that group.”