By Jimmy Hyams
When Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel addressed the Thompson-Boling Arena crowd with seven minutes to go in the first half of the Tennessee-Texas game, he uttered a familiar refrain.
“The best is yet to come,’’ Heupel said.
He could have been talking about Rick Barnes’ basketball team.
Tennessee used a 9-0 run to snap a 17-17 tie, surged to a 40-28 halftime lead, upped the ante to 61-39 six minutes into the second half, then maneuvered through a few shaky moments to dispose of the 10th-ranked Longhorns 82-71 before a sellout crowd of 21,678.
No. 4 Tennessee (18-3) shot a blistering 55.6% from the field (62.5% in the second half) and scored the nets at a 68.5% clip (24 of 35) on two-point tries to top Texas (17-4) in only the second matchup ever of top 10 teams at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“When we play together and move the ball,’’ Barnes said of his offense, “we’re pretty good.’’
Tennessee had 19 assists on 30 made baskets, outrebounded Texas 38-23 and scored 40 points in the paint.
The star of the game was 6-foot-8 senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua, who scored 27 points (he hit 12 of 15 field-goal attempts) and grabbed eight rebounds as Texas elected to guard UT’s guards and not give inside help on defense.
“O was terrific, he was absolutely terrific,’’ Barnes said of Olivier. “I was really happy for him because I know how much he cares.’’
Barnes said Nkamhoua’s monster game started in practice Friday, when he was sharp, focused and threw in a monstrous dunk driving from the top of the key.
“It looked like he dunked it with his arm pits,’’ Barnes said. “I said, `Why are you holding back? Why don’t you do that all the time?’’’
The dunk impressed point guard Zakai Ziegler.
“I lost my mind,’’ said Ziegler, who had 22 points and 10 assists in another masterful performance. “I was scared for anybody that was under the rim.’’
Nkamhoua said he surprised his teammates when he barreled toward the rim for the slam.
“If I can gather my steps,’’ he said, “it’s unfortunate for the guy trying to stop me.’’
Texas was the unfortunate victim of Nkamhoua’s brilliant outing. He managed his 27 points without attempting a 3-pointer. He didn’t have to. He scored on short jumpers, putbacks and alley-oop dunks from Ziegler off pick-and-roles.
“We can be one of the best offenses in the country,’’ Nkamhoua said. “We play fast and physical. Our offense has a lot of potential. We’ve just got to keep working at it.’’
Ziegler was the catalyst, hitting 7 of 10 field-goal attempts, nailing all five three throw tries and dropping double-digit dimes.
“What can you say about him’’ Barnes raved. “He has to be right up there with the best point guards in the country.’’
Ziegler and Nkamhoua combined for all 26 UT points during a stretch bridging the first and second halves against Texas.
“Honestly,’’ Ziegler said, “I just had a good feel for the game. I didn’t know what the box score said. It was just a feel for the game.’’
Josiah-Jordan James added 14 points and seven rebounds. Santiago Vescovi had 12 points, eight rebounds and played ball-hawking defense.
Tennessee won rather handily despite getting just three points from its bench and hitting only 6 of 19 3-point tries.
It also won when its defense didn’t play up to snuff. Texas shot 44% from the field and scored 16 more points than UT had been allowing on the season.
“We gave up back-door cuts and too many easy baskets,’’ Barnes said. “At the end of the game, we can’t do what we did – give up a layup off and in-bounds play and allow two threes.’’
But it was enough to win in this SEC-Big 12 Challenge.
And it was enough to beat the school that cut Barnes loose in 2015.