Tennessee gets huge nonconference win against No. 20 Illinois

    Tennessee notched its biggest win of the season on Saturday when it beat Associated Press No. 20 Illinois (7-2) 86-79.

    SEC media members picked No. 17 Tennessee (6-3) to win the conference in its preseason poll. The win over a ranked Illinois team should give the Vols confidence, with conference play looming in January.

    Earlier this season, Tennessee lost three consecutive games against top-20 teams, Purdue, Kansas and North Carolina, all under 10 points.

    This time, it was able to win a close game against a top-25 team.

    “This was the most focus, knowing what we had to do on the defensive end, all season,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN). “[The Illini] challenge everything you do.”

    The Vols were led by guard Dalton Knecht, a Northern Colorado transfer who scored 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting. Entering Saturday, Knecht led the team in scoring (19 points per game).

    Tennessee should make some noise into March with Knecht and guards Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler, both preseason All-SEC team members.

    Against the Illini, Vescovi had 12 points, nine rebounds and three assists, while Zeigler chipped in with 11 points, including going 6-of-6 from the foul line.

    Last season, Tennessee reached the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed and made it to the Sweet 16, where it lost to ninth-seeded FAU in its remarkable run to the Final Four.

    With its difficult nonconference schedule, the Volunteers are guaranteed to be battle-tested by the time the 2024 tournament approaches. Thanks to their win over the Illini, they might feel better about their chances of a deep run.

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