The Vols gave Kansas a run for their money. But despite missing two of their bigs, the Jayhawks were just too much for Tennessee on Saturday.
No. 3 Kansas improved to 16-3 on the year with a 74-68 victory over Tennessee. The Vols fall to 12-7 and missed an opportunity for a huge win. But it wasn’t for lack of trying, and the Jayhawks missed the post help from the suspended Silvia De Sousa and David McCormack.
Tennessee held an early lead against Kansas in the first half and were up by as much as seven points with just under six minutes to play in the opening half. But the Jayhawks would close the half on an 18-4 run sparked by the play of seven-footer Udoka Azubuike, and Kansas would never trail in the second half. In fact, they built up their lead to as much as 13 points at one point.
The Vols cut it close down the stretch, nearly erasing the Jayhawks’ 13-point lead by trimming the deficit to three points on two different occasions in the final five minutes. But UT could never close the gap completely, and Kansas had just enough to pull out a win.
Devon Dotson led the way for Kansas with 22 points and seven assists, and he was helped by Azubuike (18 points) and Ochai Agbaji (16 points).
Here are our three biggest takeaways from Tennessee’s road loss to one of the top teams in college basketball.
A Tale of Two Jayhawks
Kansas looked like a completely different basketball team when Udoka Azubuike was or wasn’t on the court.
With Azubuike on the bench with foul trouble in the first half, Kansas looked plenty beatable. Tennessee took advantage, and they took a 26-19 lead with just under six minutes to go in the first half.
But then Bill Self put Azubuike back in, and Kansas dominated the end of the half, going on an 18-4 run to close out the half. The Jayhawks held a 37-30 advantage at halftime, and Azubuike got back to work early in the second half as well. His offense and defense both helped Kansas grab a double-digit lead, leading by as much as 13 points in the first six minutes of the second half.
Then, Azubuike got back into foul trouble, and Tennessee was, again, able to take advantage.
The Vols fought back and made it a one-possession game multiple times down the stretch. But UT was never quite able to cut the deficit to less than three, and Azubuike was a big reason why. He came back onto the court over the final few minutes, and his presence made a huge difference on what Tennessee did on both ends of the court.
The seven-footer scored 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in 27 minutes of action, blocking four shots on defense as well.
John Fulkerson did a good job of drawing those two early fouls on Azubuike, and Fulkerson was hot early. The redshirt junior was one of the best players for the Vols in the game, but his efforts weren’t enough despite his second-straight double-double.
Fulkerson wasn’t the only Vol who played well. Yves Pons turned in a career day, and Jordan Bowden was on fire in the second half. But aside from true freshman point guard Santiago Vescovi, that trio had little to no help on the offensive end.
Those four Vols scored all but one of Tennessee’s 68 points on the afternoon. The only other Vol who scored against Kansas was Jalen Johnson, and he made one free throw on two attempts.
Pons scored a career-high 24 points and added seven rebounds and three blocks. Fulkerson had a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds, and Jordan Bowden scored all 19 of his points in the second half, shooting 6-of-12 overall and 3-of-4 from three. Vescovi contributed nine points, five rebounds, and three assists before fouling out. More importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over a single time.
But aside from those four, nobody else on Tennessee’s roster did much of anything on offense. Or on defense either, for that matter.
Josiah-Jordan James turned in his worst performance as a Vol, turning the ball over six times without scoring a single point on 0-of-6 shooting. He did add seven rebounds and four assists, but he did more harm than good.
Aside from Johnson, Tennessee’s bench was basically non-existent. Uros Plavsic played four minutes, Olivier Nkamhoua played nine minutes, Davonte Gaines played eight minutes, and Drew Pember was in the game for one minute. UT’s bench attempted one field goal, and that was a miss by Johnson.
Yves Pons now holds a Tennessee school record.
With his three blocks against Kansas, Pons has blocked a shot in 19-straight games. That breaks CJ Black’s record of 18-straight games with a block. Pons has blocked at least one shot in every single game Tennessee has played this season.
On the year, Pons has 51 blocks in 19 games. That total is already tied with Marus Haslip for the 10th-most in a single season in school history, and his 2.68 blocks per game is on track to be a school record as well. Black blocked 2.52 shots a game in the 1997-98 season, and that’s the current program record. He also holds the record for most blocks in a season with 73. Pons has blocked three or more shots in 12 of UT’s 19 games this season.
Pons’ 24 points smashed his previous carer-high of 19 that he set earlier this season against Murray State. Before this year, Pons had scored in double digits one time in his UT career. In 19 games this season, the junior from France has eclipsed the double-figure threshold in scoring 11 times.