The Tennessee Volunteers advanced in the SEC Tournament on Friday, but not without losing one of the team’s most key pieces in the process.
Just five days after defeating Florida to close the regular season on Sunday, Tennessee opened up tournament play with a statement win in repeat fashion.
The Vols (18-7, 10-7 SEC) defeated the Gators (14-9, 9-7 SEC) by a score of 78-66 in the quarterfinal round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville.
After a shaky regular season, one question remained as the team headed into the tournament: which team is Tennessee going to bring to Bridgestone Arena?
The team who dominated Kansas and other tournament teams during the season? Or the team that had the tendency to play down to the level of their competition?
The answer was simple. Tennessee absolutely brought their A-game and was prepared for a fight with the Gators. The Vols played tough, resilient basketball for 40 minutes. Tennessee did what they do best: play lockdown defense and patiently allow that to carry over to the offensive end.
Santiago Vescovi finished the day with 14 points, leading the Vols in scoring for the first time since the Texas A&M game on Jan. 9.
The reward for the Vols? A rematch with No. 1 seed Alabama on Saturday to go to the SEC Championship. And likely without one of their most important players.
A Big Loss in a Big Win
As Tennessee was continuing to play great basketball with the lead in the second half, disaster would strike for the Vols in the form of a flying elbow.
With 17:10 left, Florida’s Omar Payne would receive a flagrant 2 foul after his elbow struck the side of John Fulkerson’s head during a rebound attempt.
Omar Payne is ejected after using a pair of hard elbows on John Fulkerson.pic.twitter.com/djP88W3Jl9
— Sporting News (@sportingnews) March 12, 2021
Fulkerson immediately dropped to the ground, and medical staff rushed out to his aide. He would walk off the court on his own two feet, but would not end up returning to the game.
According to Barnes, Fulkerson was taken to the local medical center for further evaluation.
“They said he was fine,” Barnes said after the game. “But that they were taking him to the hospital for further observation. Something to do with an eye.”
Barnes also said he would be “surprised” if Fulkerson could play against Alabama on Saturday.
Fulkerson’s teammates quickly came to his defense at the moment, and also had his back following the game.
“I didn’t see what happened,” said Vescovi. “But I asked one of my teammates who saw it and he said [Payne] definitely did it on purpose. We’re all just thinking about John. We all care about his well-being.”
Mike White, the head coach of the Gators and brother of Tennessee athletic director Danny White, wished Fulkerson his best after the game.
“I hope John is okay,” said Coach White. “I have a lot of respect for him.”
White also said he had not seen a clip of the foul yet though.
Tennessee beat Florida on Friday the exact same way they did on Sunday. . .the Vols just played for a full game this time.
The Vols finished the game with more rebounds, triple the number of assists, and double the number of bench points in comparison to Florida. Not to mention, the Vols also forced more turnovers than they gave up, which is always a good sign.
Unlike their first game of the back-to-back though, Tennessee dominated the time spent with the lead. In fact, Florida did not lead one time.
This seems like a good stat…
Tennessee Time w Lead: 39:12
Florida Time w/ Lead: 0:00
Yup. 0:00. Efficient play to open tournament szn.
— Ric Butler (@Ric_Butler) March 12, 2021
Going into the game, only Fulkerson and Yves Pons had any sort of SEC Tournament experience, but even theirs was somewhat minimal. And after Fulkerson’s exit, a team with no tournament experience was forced to close out the second half of a tournament game.
And they did so with emphasis.
All of Vescovi’s 14 points and nine attempts came from behind the arc on the day. In his first-ever SEC Tournament game, Vescovi proved to be vital all game long. The Tennessee guard scored six in the first half and eight in the second.
“I thought we had real fun today,” said Vescovi. “Everybody was playing with a smile.”
But really, it was a team effort from top to bottom. And in Tennessee’s case, that’s exactly how this team was built to win.
The Vols had four other players finish with double-digits in scoring aside from Vescovi. Keon Johnson put up 13, Josiah-Jordan James had 12, and both Jaden Springer and Pons finished with 11.
Balance was critical for Tennessee in this game, and the team showed how good they are when the ball is moving quickly and aggressively. The team starts moving a little quicker, too.
In traditional Pons fashion, no layup was safe in Bridgestone Arena on Friday. In fact, it was almost as if open season had just begun on all layups in the area.
Pons finished with NINE (!) blocks alone in the game as the team finished with 11 on the day.
With those nine blocks, Pons set a new Tennessee single-game record, tied the tournament record for most blocked shots in a game, and as the team pointed out, had more blocks than Florida did assists.
🛑 𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐄 𝐁𝐋𝐎𝐂𝐊𝐒
🖐 𝘕𝘐𝘕𝘌 𝘉𝘓𝘖𝘊𝘒𝘚
🚫 ℕ𝕀ℕ𝔼 𝔹𝕃𝕆ℂ𝕂𝕊
✓ new Tennessee record
✓ tied the SEC Tournament record
✓ more blocks than UF had assists pic.twitter.com/aBUJV0OGsX
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) March 12, 2021
It wouldn’t be a block party in Nashville if the whole team wasn’t invited, and the whole team certainly showed out on Friday.
During the Vols’ comeback win on Sunday, Tennessee looked like they were just playing fun basketball. The team was not overthinking and overcomplicating their play. It genuinely seemed to make a difference on Sunday and did as well in the tournament.
Tennessee, in their last three halves, looks like they are playing with a little bit of swagger. Really, for the first time in a long time, too. The team elevated their play against an opponent looking for revenge, in a brand new environment for most.
Tre Mann made his return to the Florida lineup, but Tennessee had out-prepared Florida for his return.
The Vols swarmed Mann constantly during the first half, making the star guard have to work extra hard on every possession. Especially coming off of a hard-fought game against Vanderbilt less than 24 hours before.
Mann finished the night with 30 points, but only accounted for two in the first half. The Vols would have never been able to build and sustain a lead that would carry them to victory had they not been able to shut down Mann from being a factor in the start of the game.
Easy question, tough answer.
On Saturday, Tennessee will face off against the No. 1 seed Alabama Crimson Tide.
The Vols will likely be without their engine of late. As Barnes mentioned after the game, he would be “surprised” to see Fulkerson play against the Tide.
Alabama defeated Tennessee at the beginning of conference play by a score of 71-63 to give the Vols their first loss of the season.
The Tide would go on to dominate the SEC and claim the No. 1 seed, an accomplishment many experts believed would be in Tennessee’s cards.
But either way, the Vols still have an opportunity to play for a championship on Sunday. They’ll just need to play their best game of the entire season in order to win.
Tennessee has not done a great job of stringing together consecutive strong games this year. But maybe, just maybe, Friday’s win in combination with the motivation to play for Fulkerson will be enough to carry the Vols to their destiny.
Featured image is via the Tennessee Basketball Twitter account (@Vol_Hoops). All other photos courtesy of Tennessee Athletics.