In the final game of the regular season against Florida, Tennessee found a way to overcome a halftime deficit to grab the victory. With the 65-54 win, Tennessee was able to clinch the fourth seed in the upcoming SEC tournament and the all-important double-bye.
Here are three takeaways.
In a first half of basketball that Tennessee mostly would like to forget they did have one major bright spot and that was the play of John Fulkerson.
Most of the season has been a struggle for Fulkerson as he’s been unable to find the rhythm and success he had last season when he was one of the most dynamic post threats in the SEC.
Today on senior day, Fulkerson was able to turn back the clock and get his game going.
Fulkerson started the game with great amounts of hustle and energy which helped get him going. He also set a massive screen on Ques Glover that sent the Florida guard tumbling to the ground, Fulkerson turned the screen into a bucket for himself on the offensive end of the court.
“I love screening because it gets my teammates or myself a shot, ” Fulkerson said.
Offensively, Fulkerson slowed down his game for most of the season and stopped using his quickness to attack the basket but today he was a man on a mission.
In the first half, Fulkerson had 10 points on five-of-seven shooting from the floor. He also had three rebounds, two assists and a steal in 16 minutes of playing time.
In recent games, Fulkerson has been taken off the court relatively quickly when he struggled but today he made it almost impossible for Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes to sub him out because of how well he was playing.
“I told Fulkerson at halftime if he gets back to playing with that force, we'll get back to where we need to be, ” Barnes said.
Fulkerson continued to hustle and play hard in the second half. He finished the game with 14 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
If Tennessee can get this Fulkerson to show up during tournament time, Tennessee becomes much more dangerous for it’s opponents.
Stagnant first-half offense
Even in victory one of Tennessee’s glaring problems showed its face today.
Tennessee has struggled late in the season to score points in the half-court.
In the first half of basketball, Tennessee would continue its struggle against a locked-in Florida team.
Freshman guards Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer fell back in love with the mid-range jumper and it hurt their production as they couldn’t convert those shooting opportunities.
Tennessee was able to shoot 41% from the floor in the first half but most of the made opportunities came from Fulkerson scoring in the paint or guards breaking the full-court pressure and attacking the basket.
From the three-point line, Tennessee was abysmal in the first half as they shot just 16% and weren’t any better from the free-throw line as they shot just 40%.
In the second half, Tennessee didn't enhance its half-court offense that much but for the first time in a long time it used its defense to create offense and attack the basket in transition.
Tennessee was able to shoot 45% from the floor but was even worse from the three-point line as they shot just 11%.
In the paint, Tennessee dominated in the second half with 26 of its 37 points coming in the post and around the basket.
Tennessee still wasn’t perfect offensively in the second half but it started to take steps in the right direction as Tennessee heads to the SEC tournament.
Second half dominance
The second half of basketball for Tennessee was one of the best it’s played in recent memory.
Tennessee was able to impose its will on Florida for long stretches on both ends of the court.
Florida shot just 31% from the field in the second half compared to shooting 48% from the field in the first half. Tennessee also shut them down at the three-point line as the Gators shot 0% from the three-point line in the second half compared to 33% in the first half.
Florida was only able to score 21 second-half points.
Tennessee was also able to clean up on the glass and dominate Florida in the paint.
Florida out rebounded Tennessee 18-16 in the first half but the second half was a different story.
Tennessee dominated 22-11, it grabbed 11 offensive rebounds and 10 defensive rebounds.
“It was just about guys making the effort and knowing we gotta get offensive, ” Barnes said of Tennessee’s rebounding success.”
Two players who contributed to that success were Yves Pons and Josiah Jordan James.
Pons had five points and eight rebounds, six of which were offensive in what could’ve been his final game as a Volunteer.
James was also impressive as he had eight points and 10 rebounds off the bench. He was able to bring much-needed energy when Tennessee went to its small-ball lineup.
“The first person I saw today was Josiah and I told him we needed 10 rebounds,” Barnes said. “He told me he would get 10 and he did.”
Keon Johnson also exploded in the second half for 10 points, he also had three rebounds, two assists and two steals.
The next time Tennessee will be in action will be during the SEC tournament where it will look to carry over its dominant play from this second half of basketball.
“Absolutely, that's what we’ve been talking about, ” Fulkerson said on whether today can be a boost forward. “It really doesn't matter what's happened to this point. We’ve got two tournaments to go play our best basketball.”
Tennessee will play Friday at 2 p.m. ET in Nashville for its first game in the SEC tournament.