Tennessee welcomed Arkansas to Knoxville on Wednesday night, looking for their first SEC win of the season. The Vols, coming off a poor night of shooting against Alabama, were looking to fix their mistakes from the field.
If you were a Tennessee fan, the first half might’ve brought back nightmares from Saturday’s performance against the Tide. During his press conference on Tuesday, Rick Barnes hinted at the possibility of changing up the starting lineup. Well, that’s exactly what happened on Wednesday night, as freshman Keon Johnson earned his first career start at Tennessee, in the place of Victor Bailey Jr.
The Vols shooting woes continued though, as they started the game 2-7 from the field, while Arkansas was 4-5, getting them out in front 8-4. The hogs were taking advantage of the Vols open space, leading to wide open looks. As they marched on to the under twelve break, Arkansas was shooting 53% from the field and had an 18-13 lead.
In another glaring stat, the Razorbacks were out-rebounding the Vols 12-4, leading Rick Barnes to the bench for help. John Fulkerson, who had just seven points against Alabama, was held scoreless at the 11:21 mark of the 1st half. Things weren’t going well for the entire team, as they were shooting 13% from behind the arc. The Vols were settling for too many bad looks, while the hogs continued to press the ball up the court in transition.
The lone player for Tennessee to keep things close in the first half was Josiah-Jordan James, with 10 points at halftime. If it weren’t for James, this thing could’ve been a lot worse, as Arkansas led 40-33 after the first twenty minutes. The Vols only had two turnovers in the first half, but were hamstrung by poor looks.
If you were waiting for the John Fulkerson show to begin, it only took a few minutes of the 2nd half for him to get going. It was a spurt from John Fulkerson that tied the game up at the first television break, with Fulkerson putting up seven points in the quick sequence. Whatever Rick Barnes said to Fulkerson at halftime, he clearly got the message.
As both teams continued trading shots, it was Tennessee that took the lead at the 12:23 mark, off a Jaden Springer three-pointer, The Vols were finally leading, though it didn’t last long, Arkansas’s JD Notae continued pressuring the Vols defense, especially getting to the rim. He finished with 19 points, on 7-11 shooting from the field. But, the Tennessee offense kept pushing, thanks in part to Victor Bailey Jr. as well.
Bailey, who was replaced in the starting lineup tonight, didn’t let the situation take over him. Victor had 8 points in the 2nd half, going 2-3 from the perimeter, keeping the Vols out in front. At the 7:48 mark of the 2nd half, Bailey had already scored 17 points, what he would finish with on the night.
The Vols were finally getting out of a shooting slump and finishing shots. John Fulkerson was asked during his postgame press conference about how this team approached the final twenty minutes.
“The second half was a reflection of our team coming together. We all came together and we had some players make some great plays.”
As the under four minute break hit, Tennessee led 68-61, thanks in part to them attacking the paint and getting to the free throw line. The Vols had outscored the hogs 12-4 during this 5:54 stretch of play. But unfortunately for Tennessee, Arkansas wasn’t ready to say uncle.
The Razorbacks had pulled within two points with :24 remaining, thanks to a few quick baskets and a monster three point shot by Jalen Tate. But, the Vols had themselves a clutch free throw shooter, with freshman Keon Johnson. Over the course of the final 1:30, Johnson went 6-6 from the charity stripe, earning those precious late game minutes that Rick Barnes likes to discuss.
In a much crazier stat, Tennessee didn’t score a FG over the final 4:50 of the game, they won the game at the free throw line. Sanitago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James finished the game 4-4 at the line and sealed it for the Vols.
The Vols won 79-74, while shooting 28% from behind the arc and 45% from the field. If you wanted to see the Vols fight, scratch and claw for a victory, tonight was your lucky night. But really, this type of game was what this squad needed. Continuing to fight through adversity and bad luck to get the win. Coming off the Alabama performance, if you’re a Tennessee fan, you love to see this type of fight.
It can get better and they will get better. John Fulkerson is a bit banged up according to Rick Barnes and Jaden Springer is still battling back from an ankle sprain. This wasn’t a great performance from Vescovi, but they found other players to rely on. The biggest to me, not just because of the score sheet, was Josiah-Jordan James. The coaching staff and fanbase have been waiting on James to breakout, knowing full well he could. So, tonight is the performance he can build off of.
The young man lost his childhood home in the past week and his mom waited till after the Alabama game to tell him. There’s no telling what kind of stress Josiah has been dealing with over the last five days, but tonight he brought that aggression to the court, and it paid off for him.
Josiah-Jordan James finished the night with 17 points and 9 rebounds, one shy of a double-double. This was James stepping up and becoming a leader.
“He’s an incredible human being”, Barnes said postgame.
If the coaching staff thought they might be starting to see a different type of player, it’s becoming obvious to his head coach.
“He’s starting to become the voice of this team”
Tennessee recorded their first SEC win of the season on Wednesday night, now they travel to College Station to take on the 6-2 Aggies.
All Images Courtesy Of Tennessee Athletic Communications