After a poor first half saw Tennessee trailing Arkansas by seven points it looked like the No. 9 Vols were ripe for their second straight upset loss. However, Tennessee rallied in the second half thanks to a strong performance from John Fulkerson and clutch free throw shooting down the stretch to win 79-74.
Here are three takeaways
Vols return to form in the second half
Arkansas controlled the first half of play, jumping out to a 40-33 lead thanks to 57% shooting from the field.
Tennessee was in danger of losing its second game in a row, putting the Vols behind the eight ball in the SEC Title race.
The Vols responded immediately, opening the second half on a 9-2 run to tie up the game. The game would remain back-and-forth from that point but Tennessee looked like a much sharper team in the second half.
“Well it’s important because if you let a team like Arkansas stretch it out on you they’re a hard team to come back,” Barnes said. “I just thought we played with much more purpose offensively. They’re a difficult team to defend but we kept fighting on that end.”
“The second half we played to our standard of what we say we want to play,” freshman Keon Johnson said. “Just coming out and defending and executing on the offensive end.”
That started on defense where the Vols held Arkansas to just 21 points in the first 16 minutes of the second half. While Tennessee needs to play better defense down the stretch, the Vols stiffened up on defense for most of the second half, getting the stops to pull themselves into the lead after trailing for most of the game.
On offense, Tennessee finally got some jump shots to fall, going three-of-seven from beyond the arc. Also credit the Vols’ free throw shooting, after starting 10-of-16, Tennessee made its final 10 free throws, including six from Johnson, to ice the game.
“We’ve told him ‘if you’re going to play at the end, you better be able to make free throws if you want to be out there,’” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “To his credit he’s spent a lot of time the last week shooting free throws. … He’s been spending time shooting free throws, continuing to work on ball handling, all those type things and he’s going to have to.
Fulkerson returns to form
Barnes hasn’t been shy to call out senior forward John Fulkerson when he’s struggled this season, the latest example coming off his poor performance against Alabama.
“Coach and I have had conversations since then (Alabama game) and he’s told me, I guess what he said (to the media),” Fulkerson said. “He knows the type of player I can be and how I can perform, how I can help my teammates. He kind of called me out. I got to step it up. I think he was right. I definitely wasn’t playing to my potential.”
Fulkerson rebounded in a big way tonight with 16 points, 12 of which came in the second half, and eight rebounds.
Fulkerson didn’t lead Tennessee in scoring, Victor Bailey Jr. and Josiah Jordan James edged him out with 17 points a piece but the southpaw from Kingston was Tennessee’s clear offensive leader.
After Tennessee shot a poor 40% from the field and 20% from three-point range in the first half the Vols turned to Fulkerson, who made the right play more times than not on his way to shooting four-of-seven and adding three assists.
“The message was really for the younger guys to understand he needed to get the ball so we could establish our inside game,” Barnes said of the halftime message. “He (John) answered the bell coming out of the second half, but he was able to get the ball not necessarily just to score it but to get it in and out. … He made some great shots out of it.”
Tennessee’s offense looked more like the 2019-20 Vols, starting every possession with a Fulkerson touch, and playing off of him.
Wednesday, it helped get Arkansas’ defense moving and helped make the Vols more efficient as they totaled 46 second half points.
If Fulkerson can continue to play like he did to end last season Tennessee’s offense will be much more dynamic.
Turnover margin the difference
Arkansas’ offense attacked Tennessee similarly to how Alabama did, tallying 74 points, the highest mark the Vols have given up this season.
The Razorbacks were great shooting the ball, making 53% of their shots and 40% of their three-point tries.
The equalizer for Tennessee’s defense was its ability to force turnovers. The Razorbacks turned it over 20 times on the night compared to just five from Tennessee.
Arkansas’ 11 first half turnovers kept Tennessee in the game and was the only way the Vols could get stops in the first half with the Razorbacks scoring 40 points.
Tennessee was able to turn turnovers into points, scoring nine points in transition and 19 points following turnovers.
Credit Bailey and James for not turning the ball over while combining to play 59 minutes.
Tennessee returns to action Saturday when they travel to College Station to take on Texas A&M. Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on ESPN2.