After being backed into a corner in the first half against Florida, the Tennessee Volunteers buckled down for one of their most impressive wins when they needed it most.
Tennessee (17-7, 10-7 SEC) defeated Florida (13-8, 9-7 SEC) on Saturday by a 65-54 in the final game of the SEC regular season.
With the win, Tennessee officially lands as the No. 4 seed in the SEC tournament, securing the coveted double-bye to start the quarterfinals. Tennessee will take on the winner of No. 5 vs. No. 12/No. 13 in their opening game.
“I appreciate what our guys have done this season,” head coach Rick Barnes said following the win. “I hope everybody appreciates what these guys have done to be able to play this season.”
But the season isn’t over yet, and really is only just getting started.
The story of this game was simple. On Senior Day in Knoxville, John Fulkerson’s revitalized performance helped lead a remarkable comeback for the recently streaky Volunteers.
Before the game, Fulkerson and Yves Pons participated in Tennessee’s senior day presentation. The limited fans in attendance weren’t quiet or passive as they showed their admiration for the two longtime Vols.
“[In] that moment, I realized I was playing my last game at TBA and in front of fans,” Fulkerson said about exiting the court for the final time in the game. “It brought back so many memories of the success we’ve had and how much I’ve grown off the court.”
What makes the moment even better, though, is that senior day brought back a couple of vintage performances. Could it really be the last, though? Fulkerson left the door open after the game.
“I still haven’t decided,” said Fulkerson after the game. “I really don’t know if I can go through another senior day like that. But, going through another senior day means I get to play with my teammates again.”
Fulkerson finished with 14 points on the night and deserves the credit for single-handedly keeping the beginning of the game from getting out of reach with his aggressive play. The rest of the Tennessee team would eventually find their shot later in the game, but it might not have mattered without Fulkerson’s first-half performance.
On the other hand, Yves Pons might not have made a big impact on the scoreboard but certainly made up for it in the hustle categories.
Pons finished with eight rebounds in the game, second-most on the court behind Josiah-Jordan James’ ten.
But the moment that had everyone talking was when Pons channeled his inner Superman and soared through the air to deliver one of the nastiest blocks of his Tennessee career.
“I’m going to miss being here,” said Pons, following his final game in Knoxville. “I’ve loved every second of the past four years.”
Thanks for one final regular-season swat, Yves. Sincerely, Vol Nation.
Tennessee Surges in the Second Half
Going back to the beginning of the game, Tennessee struggled a bit right out of the gate. After trading blows back and forth to start the game, a quick 13-2 run would send the Gators up 31-17 with just over five minutes remaining in the first half.
Fulkerson made the first four of Tennessee’s eight buckets to keep Tennessee within striking distance early, which was good for Tennessee, considering the rest of the team needed a little bit of time to get their head in the game.
Tennessee’s guards looked slow and sluggish to start and continued to choose poor shots with contested (and sometimes uncontested) midrange jump shots.
When the Vols offensive is clicking, it’s directly caused by the team’s aggressive mindset when attacking the basket. When it’s not clicking, it’s because the team is settling for shots. The first half was represented by the latter.
Trailing 37-28 at the half, the Vols needed a spark in the second half if they wanted any chance to go into the tournament with some momentum. And wouldn’t you know, that’s exactly what happened.
The Vols began the second half by making a couple of quick shots. Then they played good defense. After that, they started making even better shots. And finally, they started to play truly suffocating defense. That’s when the game was over.
“We’ve had the best practices we’ve had this season during this past week,” said Fulkerson. “We’ve had so much togetherness as a team this week.”
The Vols continued to ramp up their efforts on every possession in the second half, cranking up their aggression on both ends of the court.
Vols freshman Keon Johnson led the team in scoring in the second half, finding 10 of his 14 points in the final 20 minutes. Victor Bailey Jr. also came alive and contributed eight points in the second half.
Fulkerson, Johnson, and Bailey Jr. all finished with 14 points on the night.
After the offensive gameplan had started to sink in and work, Tennessee’s defensive presence elevated tenfold. The Vols swarmed the Gators on their end of the court, trapping the Florida big men down low and stopping the guards from driving to the hoop.
After shooting 48 percent from the field in the first half, the Gators dropped all the way down to 31 percent in the second half alone.
Florida’s leading scorer on the season, Tre Mann, was a game-time scratch due to migraines and did not play in the game.
That opened the door for Ques Glover, from Bearden High School, to take some heightened minutes in his return to Knoxville. Glover finished with two points.
Junior Tyree Appleby led the Gators in scoring on the night and finished with 19 points.
What Went So Right?
As for the rest of the Tennessee team, a balanced scoring effort certainly helped the Vols achieve their comeback victory.
Best little stretch of basketball we’ve played in a couple of weeks following the kick
— Jon Reed (@Jon__Reed) March 7, 2021
James finished with eight points, followed by Vescovi with six, Pons with five, and Springer with four.
“You’ve seen us play with him and without him,” said Barnes on James’ play after the game. “You know how much of a difference he makes.”
Ultimately, Tennessee will need a little more production from those four guys mentioned, but against Florida, each one played their part to erase the deficit and secure the win.
Tennessee’s biggest advantage of the night came on the boards, where they arguably had their most dominant performance in meaningful play this season.
Tennessee out-rebounded Florida 38 to 29 and doubled Florida’s offensive rebound total at 18 to nine. The aggressive play on the glass truly was the difference-maker. Tennesse’s continued effort to play smart basketball gave the Vols numerous second chances, and to their credit, they capitalized on them.
Also worth noting, Thompson-Boling Arena also played host to a family reunion on Saturday. Tennessee athletic director Danny White’s brother, Mike, is the head coach of the Florida basketball team.
“I’m not going to lie; it’s a little awkward,” White jokingly said to the announcers during the ESPN broadcast. “I didn’t expect our first matchup to be a game with so much at stake!”
Hopefully, today’s win is the first of many for Danny to brag about at the dinner table.
Next Stop: Nashville
With the regular-season officially done and over, Tennessee now turns its attention to the SEC tournament before the big one follows shortly after.
While there will be time to look back on the regular season and all of its insanity in hindsight, now is not that time. Tennessee gained a huge chunk of momentum with their win over Florida and set themselves up as best they could for the tournament. All eyes should be kept forward.
On Friday, Mar. 12, Tennessee will take on the winner of the second-round matchup. That game will be between the No. 5 Florida Gators and the winner of the first-round matchup between No. 12 Vanderbilt and No. 13 Texas A&M.
The Vols game will tip-off 25 minutes after the conclusion of the first quarterfinals game featuring No. 1 Alabama. The Alabama game will begin at 11:00 a.m. CT.
Here is a look at the full 2021 SEC Tournament Bracket, courtesy of ESPN.
All Photos are from Tennessee Athletics and are from the Official Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops), Twitter Page.