Tennessee used a second half burst from John Fulkerson to overcome a sluggish first 30 minutes, surviving against Vanderbilt, 65-61.
Tennessee’s offense struggled in the first half and collapsed in the game’s final minute, but a strong second half stretch from the Vols’ frontcourt was enough to hold off the Commodores.
Here are three takeaways.
“Pathetic” first half offense
Rick Barnes was fired up heading to the locker room at halftime. Following a half where his team scored just 28 points, Barnes called his team’s first half performance “pathetic” during his halftime interview.
“I was upset at halftime with how we started the game with missed layups and silly turnovers,” Barnes said. “Things at this time of year you shouldn’t be making. … I’m just not real happy with how we started the game.
Barnes frustration with his team’s first half offense was fair. The Vols shot 33% from the field and 2 of 10 from beyond the arc.
Tennessee turned it over six times, not an absurdly high mark, but the Vols were consistently careless with the basketball and were fortunate to only turn it over six times.
Jordan Bowden was the one bright spot of Tennessee’s first half. The Knoxville native temporarily broke out of his shooting slump, hitting two 3-pointers and scoring 12 points.
Vols offense goes with the frontcourt
Tennessee has seen its offense improve consistently since the start of SEC play. Outside of the boost Santiago Vescovi brought to the lineup, the most important improvements the Vols made were the inside scoring they’ve gotten from Yves Pons and John Fulkerson.
In the first 30 minutes Tennessee got just three points from Fulkerson and six points from Pons. Tennessee trailed by two with 10 minutes left and couldn’t seem to find consistent offense.
Enter John Fulkerson.
Fulkerson dominated the next eight minutes scoring 14 points, including 10 straight for Tennessee in a two minute stretch. Vanderbilt had no answers for the Vols’ big man down the stretch as the Vols built a 13-point lead.
“There’s no doubt he was playing with more effort” Barnes said of Fulkerson’s strong second half. “He was working harder to try to get the ball. … There’s no doubt when he got going he put more effort into it.”
“We needed him,” Santiago Vescovi said. “We’re really thankful that he got back in the second half. He just started playing his game again and I think that really helped us as well.”
Fulkerson also made his impact felt on the defensive end blocking a pair of shots.
Pons’ offensive production wasn’t anywhere near Fulkerson’s, but the junior added two points, a steal and some crucial rebounds down the stretch.
Late game carelessness
For the third time in as many games Tennessee’s offense fell apart in the game’s final minutes. Against Arkansas last week it mattered little, the Vols led by 20 plus points and won with ease.
It cost the Vols Saturday at South Carolina where they blew a six-point lead with just over three minutes due to three turnovers.
On Tuesday fans were rushing to the exits with Tennessee leading by 12 with 1:09 left. Once again, the Vols collapsed, both offensively and defensively this time, allowing Vanderbilt to cut the deficit to two points.
Tennessee turned it over three times in the final minutes as Vescovi, Pons and Jalen Johnson all coughed it up.
“You can’t turn the ball over the way we turned the ball over,” Barnes said. “We thought the game was over like a bunch of immature guys and got sloppy and next thing you know we’re in a battle.”
Vanderbilt’s offense clawed its way back into the game thanks to a pair of Saban Lee triples. Tennessee’s lead shrunk all the way to two points with six seconds left before Jordan Bowden iced the game at the free throw line.
“We didn’t take care of the ball down the stretch,” freshman guard Davonte Gaines said. “It just wasn’t smart. Throwing the ball around when guys were trapping. Not enough poise just to beat the press.”
Tennessee late game struggles handling the ball have become a common theme. If they continue in the Vols’ final five games, it’s going to be a long two and a half weeks for the Big Orange.
Tennessee returns to action on Saturday when the Vols travel to Auburn to take on the 13thranked Tigers. Tipoff from Auburn Arena is set for noon ET and will be broadcast on CBS.