Tennessee has beaten Kentucky more than any other program, but not too many of those wins have happened in Rupp Arena. No win looked less likely than Tuesday night, when the Vols entered as 8.5-point underdogs and trailed by 17 in the second half.
However, Tennessee kept clawing and found a way to get the job done, picking up a legendary win — the Vols’ sixth ever at Rupp Arena and their third in my lifetime.
“There was a look about our guys,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “I told you guys before there’s a look that you see on your players faces sometimes and you don’t want to get in their way, and they had that look tonight where I felt like whatever we call, they were going to execute it; and they did.”
With Tuesday’s win, Tennessee finally has the marquee win they’ve been looking for all season. A win at No. 6 Kentucky is as good as any bubble team will have. The Vols have miraculously put themselves back into the NCAA Tournament conversation just a week after looking completely dead in a blowout loss at Arkansas.
Tennessee still has work to do if they’re going to make the NCAA Tournament. The Vols will have to beat No. 17 Auburn at home Saturday, and the Tigers have been a recent kryptonite against Tennessee as the Vols have lost four straight in the series.
Even if Tennessee gets past Auburn, they’ll still be on the outside looking in to make the NCAA Tournament. They will have to win at least one game, possibly two, in the SEC Tournament to make the big dance.
The Vols’ play as of late says they’re up for the task as this team is starting to jell together, but consistency hasn’t been their strength this season, and they’re going to need a lot of it down the stretch.
It took a lot going right for Tennessee to win Tuesday night. John Fulkerson was brilliant, scoring a career-high 27 points. Josiah-Jordan James scored a career-high 16 points, all coming in the second half, while recording seven rebounds, five assists and two steals.
Yves Pons was excellent, throwing in all three of his attempts from beyond the arc, going for 15 points. Jalen Johnson even threw in a pair of triples in the first half, helping keep Tennessee in the game and giving the Vols a bench spark.
The Vols got career plays from two starters and good performances from nearly everybody in Kentucky.
That, realistically, won’t continue over the next week and a half, but Fulkerson has been a consistent force in conference play. James seems to be turning a corner as well, playing back-to-back good games, with his head coach noting “he’s the healthiest he’s been since July” after Tuesday’s win.
The Vols may not put together a run to the NCAA Tournament, but if they don’t, Tuesday’s win will still be a memorable one. A win that keeps Barnes’ record over John Calipari over .500 (7-5).
It’s a win that will make people forgive the Vols’ 2019-2020 down season before Tennessee receives an influx of talent this summer.
But if Tennessee makes a run into the NCAA Tournament, with the win catapulting them there, it will be remembered as an all-time great Tennessee basketball win. Fulkerson’s performance will go in the vault of legendary Tennessee performances.
Who knows how this team will finish — the Vols have been far from predictable this season — but they’ve also shown incredible growth in the past two months. If they can keep that going for another week and a half, they might just make something special happen.
“They are a much better team, but we were ten times better than we were in Knoxville,” Barnes said on the Vols’ growth. “We weren’t very good on offense. … Across the board, I said it, not one guy didn’t help us get done what we needed to get done tonight.”