For the second straight Saturday, the Vols saw a large double-digit lead dwindle in the second half. However, this Saturday, Tennessee would hold on beating Florida, 63-58.
After blowing a 17-point lead at Auburn a week ago, it looked like the Vols would blow a 19-point home lead Saturday, letting Florida cut Tennessee’s lead to one point in the last three minutes. Thanks to John Fulkerson’s first career 3-pointer and a put-back slam, the Vols would hold off the Gators push.
Tennessee built its lead with a balanced scoring effort and stout first half defense. The Vols were dominant in the first half, building a 15-point halftime lead.
“I thought in the first half we were really good (offensively),” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “Defensively, we were outstanding. … We knew that we had to have a great defensive effort. We extend our defense and changed some ball screen coverage we hadn’t used as much lately.”
The Vols were consistent in the first half nipping their recent turnover struggles turning it over just four times. Tennessee didn’t get anything from its bench, but the starters were balanced sharing the ball well.
All five of Tennessee’s starters scored between five and 10 points in the first half while assisting on nine of their 14 baskets.
After getting blitz by high ball screen action at Arkansas Wednesday, Tennessee looked significantly better guarding Saturday. Florida shot just 33% in the first half while turning the ball over 11 times.
“You look at the first half and it’s usually us with eight or nine turnovers,” Barnes said.
That changed significantly in the second half when Florida caught fire offensively shooting 55% from the field and 56% from 3-point range.
Tennessee offense stayed hot at the start of the second half scoring 16 points in the first eight minutes of the second half. The stretch was capped off by a ball movement clinic. Santiago Vescovi’s over the head pass to Yves Pons got the defense moving. Pons swung it to Josiah-Jordan James who dropped a pass inside to Fulkerson for the slam, giving the Vols a 19-point lead.
It was downhill for Tennessee from there as its offense struggled, scoring just 15 points in the final 12 minutes.
Florida went on a 14-4 run over the next four minutes, where Tennessee’s only baskets came out of a timeout and while shooting the bonus.
The stretch helped Florida crawl back into striking distance and the Gators kept coming with energy on both ends of the court. Tennessee didn’t have many answers for Florida after that run as the Gators kept chopping away, going on a 9-2 run, including seven straight points for Kerry Blackshear.
“Once they got behind and got more aggressive, we didn’t adjust quick enough,” Barnes said. “We missed two free throws that could have helped stifle that.”
Tennessee led by one with 2:30 left and it looked like the Vols had another fruitless possession, but John Fulkerson had other ideas. Tennessee’s redshirt-junior forward hit a 3-pointer, leaning to the right, as the shot clock expired giving the Vols some space.
“I knew the shot clock was winding down and I just set my feet and put it up there and it felt really good coming off my hand,” Fulkerson said. “It was a really big shot. … I was talking to Kerry Blackshear down at the other end and I was like, ‘That was God right there.’ He said, ‘Good shot.’”
After a Florida basket on the other end, Fulkerson would come up big again. The Sevierville native cleaned up a Jordan Bowden missed layup with a put-back slam giving Tennessee a two-possession lead and Fulkerson his game high, 22nd point of the game.
After a pair of stops, crucial free throws from Vescovi and James would seal the deal for Tennessee helping them end a two-game losing skid and improving its win streak over Florida to four games.
Tennessee wouldn’t get any bench points, but four of the Vols’ starters scored in double digits while Pons scored eight.
James ended his recent cold streak turning in his best performance since returning from injury against South Carolina. The freshman did a little bit of everything scoring 12 points while adding eight rebounds, six assists, two blocked shots and a steal.
“Coach has been on me just about playing harder and good things will happen,” James said. “That’s what I tried to do on both ends of the court. Just play hard and not try to force anything, let the game come to me.”
Tennessee will return to action Tuesday night when they travel to Lexington to take on Kentucky. Tipoff from Rupp Arena is set for 9 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on SEC Network.