“Tonight is the night Keon Johnson became President.”
As a winter storm swept through Lexington on Saturday night, Tennessee seemed to be caught up in the cold to start the game. But by the end, the Vols star freshmen set off fireworks in Rupp arena to give Tennessee an improbable comeback victory.
The Vols have displayed an extremely balanced scoring output among the players all season long. While it wasn’t always necessary, it did beg the question: “Does Tennessee have a star player who can carry the team to 25 points in a win if needed?”
That question was definitively answered tonight. When Tennessee needed it the most, they didn’t just have one player step up and take charge; they had two. And they were Tennessee’s two five-star freshmen, Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer.
Kentucky took a ten-point lead into halftime and maintained it to the 12-minute mark in the second half. But that is where everything would change. In the final 12 minutes in the game, Tennessee went on and dominated until the final whistle. The Vols outscored the Wildcats by a score of 34 to 13 in that span behind Johnson and Springer’s play.
“What we did in the second half is what we were trying to do in the first half,” said head coach Rick Barnes following the game in Lexington.
Johnson and Springer combined for 24 of Tennessee’s final 34 points, including 16 straight for the Vols at one point.
“They were in attack mode,” said coach Barnes. Both freshmen for Tennessee finished with their career-high in points; Johnson with 27 and Springer with 23.
This is the night Keon Johnson became President.
— Russell Smith (@Russell___Smith) February 7, 2021
One of the key reasons for Tennessee’s offensive outbreak this game was their motivation to drive to the basket and force the defense to move and rotate. Both Johnson and Springer were masterful in the way they drove to the basket, which would either catch the defense off guard or open up a shooter after a rotation. The Vols scored 54% of their points inside the paint tonight.
In Tennessee’s three previous games, they averaged a total of 62 points per game, including two games that did not get out of the low 50’s. Tonight, the Vols showed a new offensive scheme that relied on speed and hustle.
“Have to give credit to Coach,” said freshman guard Jaden Springer when asked about Rick Barnes coaching throughout the game. “[He] told us to be aggressive, get downhill, and make plays. Stuck to the gameplan.”
It was truly a star-making performance for Tennessee’s two young bucks. Both players had solid first halves, each making four field goals. But it was how they stepped up in the second half that gave Tennessee the victory on the road.
“I was definitely feeding off Keon’s energy,” said Springer. “I just followed his lead.”
The beginning of the game, however, wasn’t so lopsided. The Vols took the quick lead out of the break and then traded back and forth with the Wildcats, all for about the first six minutes of the game. Kentucky took the lead at 12-10 with 13:28 remaining in the first half and only gave it up for one possession in those remaining 13 minutes.
The story of the first half was simple. Tennessee was going to have to not only battle Kentucky but also the whistle in the first half.
Not every foul that Tennessee committed in the first half was controversial, but three shots at the charity line in the first 20 minutes compared to Kentucky’s 15 is enough for anyone to raise an eyebrow. Speaking of that sweeping winter storm and its effect from earlier, John Fulkerson seemed to have caught frostbite on the way into the arena.
Fulkerson finished the first half with zero points, and no attempted shots or free throws in his three-minute logged.
That’s right, three minutes. Fulkerson was one of the many players Tennessee had caught up in foul trouble, but his troubles started early and often, forcing Barnes to put his big man on the bench.
Fulkerson did not score any points in his 10 minutes in Saturday’s matchup against Kentucky. Towards the end of the first half, the Vols suddenly lost every bit of steam they had and reverted to the final minutes of the Ole Miss catastrophe. Tennessee finished the half 1-of-10 from the field and allowed Kentucky to gain and extend the lead to 42-34 at the half.
Neither Tennessee nor Kentucky shot the three-ball well tonight, as both teams were hovering right around the 25% mark in the final box score. Tennessee, however, made their threes when they needed them. Three out of the five came in the second half. One from Victory Bailey Jr. was en route to regaining the lead, and the other two from Vescovi and James were Tennessee’s final two buckets as the nails in the coffins.
In terms of the final box score, Tennessee’s unsurprisingly reflects a nice little win. The Vols bested the Cats in field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage, turnover margin, rebounds, and blocks.
On a cold night in Lexington, the Vols found their hot hand thanks to Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer. Saturday night’s matchup was really the first game of the season in which Tennessee was not going to win but won because someone on the team carried them to victory.
We’ve seen legends do it for the Vols in the past: Grant Williams, Kevin Punter Jr, Josh Richardson, Jarnell Stokes… And that’s just from the last few years.
In Rupp Arena, both Johnson and Springer showed why they would be remembered in that category of guys who have that take-over-a-game gene in their DNA.
The Vols gave the fans the full spectrum of emotions tonight, ranging from utter frustration to pure joy. Pretty much a good microcosm for the whole season so far.
Either way, tonight was a massive win for Barnes and the squad. As coach Barnes said after the game, “Kentucky is our rival.” The fans know it, the coaches know it, and the players know it.
For the first time since 1976-1977, Tennessee has won back-to-back games in Rupp Arena. And it sure does feel good.
The Vols will be in Knoxville this upcoming Wednesday to play Florida.
All Images Courtesy of Kentucky Athletics