Yves Pons- Tennessee vs South Carolina

Tennessee guard/forward Yves Pons (35) dunks the ball during a basketball game between the Tennessee Volunteers and the South Carolina Gamecocks at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., on Wednesday, February 17, 2021.

Tennessee’s yo-yo season continued Wednesday with Tennessee blowing by South Carolina for a 93-73 win. Victor Bailey Jr. went for a career high 29 points and John Fulkerson snapped out of his recent slump with strong play.

Here are three takeaways.

Offensive explosion

Over the past years, most matchups between Rick Barnes’ Vols and Frank Martin’s Gamecocks have been low scoring affairs. In fact, a season ago, the highest point total by either team was 63 points in a pair of matchups.

That was far from the case Wednesday as both offenses hit the ground running in the first half, with Tennessee’s offense being able to sustain success throughout the game.

The Gamecocks jumped out to an early 25-21 lead thanks to a red hot seven-of-nine shooting start from beyond the arc 

“We tell our guys— we’re going to play some drive first guys, but even that— anybody at this level can make a shot,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “We weren’t closing out with a hand up and letting guys shoot like it was HORSE.”

The Vols were able to keep pace in South Carolina’s quick start thanks to a pair of early threes from Bailey (more on him below).

Three-pointers stopped falling for South Carolina midway through the first half and Tennessee was able to push its lead to 11 points at the break.

Tennessee would lead by double-digits for most of the remainder of the night besides a sloppy stretch that saw the Vols turn it over five times in just over two minutes.

The Vols would end with 16 turnovers, a lone flaw in a strong offensive night that saw UT shoot 54% from the field and 47% from three-point range. 

South Carolina would never cut the Vols’ lead to less than seven and would eventually pull away but the stretch presents a dilemma Tennessee’s offense faces. Its ceiling is higher when they force turnovers and get out and run, 25 points off turnovers and 16 fast break points Wednesday, but the Vols can also get sloppy going fast, leading to poor stretches of play that allow lesser opponents to hang in the game.

“If we don’t turn the ball over,” Barnes said when asked if he felt like his team was turning a corner offensively. “We had some really bad turnovers in the second half, and again they (South Carolina) has something to do with some of them, but some of them they don’t.”

Bailey and Fulkerson show life

A major reason for Tennessee’s offensive inconsistencies in SEC play has been the struggles of upperclassmen John Fulkerson and Victor Bailey Jr.

Bailey had scored double digits just three times in the last 10 games and was held scoreless in Tennessee’s loss Saturday at LSU. Bailey came out of his slump against the Gamecocks, scoring a game high 29 points and shooting South Carolina out of its zone with four made first half triples.

Bailey ended with seven made three pointers while adding four assists and no turnovers.

“It felt great,” Bailey said. “It’s always good to see some shots fall and (to) have my teammates hyping me up, my coaches telling me to shoot it. It always feels good to see some shots fall through the net.”

Fulkerson has been one of the biggest disappointments of Tennessee’s 2021 season. After finishing last season on a tear, Fulkerson was named a preseason All SEC First Team selection.

The Kingsport native has been inconsistent all season with specific struggles as of late, scoring just eight total points in his last three games.

“Individually we keep talking to guys about you have to get yourself involved some we can only do too much from an offensive standpoint,” Barnes said 

Fulkerson did just that, finding his offensive game scoring 19 points in a number of ways. Fulkerson also got involved in the game in other ways, recording six rebounds and three assists.

“I think I did do that more tonight,” Fulkerson said of his ability to score within the offense. “What that looks like for me is getting drop offs, transition, offensive rebounds, running the floor, things like that, that are plays that don’t take skill. You can do just  by energy, effort and hustle. Those are really the easiest baskets to get.

Odds and Ins

With Josiah Jordan James out of the lineup, Tennessee’s front court was going to have to be stronger on the glass without the Vols’ leading rebounder.

Fulkerson provided six rebounds and Pons was fantastic on the glass, securing nine boards. The senior from France looked better than he did Saturday as he continues to battle a lingering knee injury.

Pons didn’t force the issue offensively but still had a solid night scoring 10 points on five-of-six shooting.

Olivier Nkamhoua also gave Tennessee four rebounds off the bench.

Reliable bench play has been a problem for the Vols all season, but while they didn’t feel up the stat sheet, Nkamhoua and Davonte Gaines both gave Tennessee strong minutes.

Nkamhoua played 18 minutes and Gaines played 19 minutes combining for five rebounds, two assists and two steals. Neither of the sophomores are going to blow people away with their skill, but the more they can give Tennessee minutes without being a liability, the better for the Big Orange.

“We obviously knew that we were going to get Ticket (Davonte Gaines) in the game tonight. We were going to get Oliver in the game if we could,” Barnes said. 

Lastly, Tennessee recorded its most assists in SEC play this season, tallying 26 on 32 made baskets.

Up Next

Tennessee will return to action Saturday when they host Kentucky to Thompson-Boling Arena. Tipoff is set for noon ET and will be broadcast on CBS.

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