No.9 Tennessee got back to its winning ways on Thursday night inside of Thompson-Boling Arena with a 79-74 victory over the Arkansas Razorbacks.
The Vols (8-1, 2-1 SEC) were led by four players in double-figures. Josiah-Jordan James and Victor Bailey Jr. led the way with 17 points apiece, while John Fulkerson chipped in 16 points and Keon Johnson had 15 points, respectively.
Here’s a look at the five biggest observations from Tennessee’s win over Arkansas:
The Incredible Fulk awakes
Fulkerson scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half and nine of them over the first 6:53 of action to erase Arkansas’ seven-point halftime lead. The fifth-year senior had just four points on four shots in the first half. Rick Barnes’ message at halftime didn’t pertain to Fulkerson, however.
“Well, the message was really for the younger guys to understand that (they) needed to get the ball (inside) so we could establish our inside-out game, whether it was (Fulkerson) or Yves (Pons),” Barnes said following the game. “John had struggled, but I thought he answered the bell coming out in the second half and he was able to get the ball — not even necessarily to score it, but to play inside-out. We like those step-in threes, and he made a couple good passes out.
“You look at the shot chart in the first half – Keon (Johnson) and Jaden (Springer) had taken more shots than Yves and Fulky – we said we want those guys to be aggressive, but they have got to let those guys touch the ball some and play off of them.”
The second half surge from Fulkerson came after being benched in Tennessee’s last game out against Alabama. Fulkerson responded well against the Hogs with eight rebounds, three assists and three blocks in 33 minutes to go along with his 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting from the field.
“I think we were gaining momentum from what we were running and I wanted to keep doing it,” Fulkerson said. “Whether the play was for me, I knew that, that play was working and I wanted to keep going to it, until they stopped it.”
Josiah-Jordan James is emerging
James played exceptional basketball against Arkansas. The sophomore finished with a career-high 17 points, a team-high nine rebounds, three steals, a block and an assist in 36 minutes of action. James shot 6-of-12 from the field and 2-of-6 from the 3-point line.
“Josiah was terrific from start to finish,” Barnes said. “He was a guy that you could just tell was locked in… Josiah got it going there for us and we broke it loose.”
The Charleston, South Carolina turned in his impressive performance while dealing with a heavy heart. James’ family home was hit by a New Years’ Eve firework according to Scott Eisberg of WCIV in Charleston, creating a fire right above his bedroom. The fire most of James’ personal belongings, including much of his sports memorabilia collection.
“Josiah is just an incredible human being,” Barnes said of the situation. “His mom waited until after the game (against Alabama) to tell him what had happened. And he is the kind of guy that keeps locked in himself, and I am sure he has not been home in a while, but he is probably thinking back that it is all gone. He lost everything in his room.
“He is such a hard worker, and he is as good of a teammate as you want to be around. And he is quickly starting to become the voice of this team.”
Freshman makes his first career start
Johnson made his first career start against Arkansas, replacing Victor Bailey Jr. in the lineup. It was the first lineup changeup of the season for the Vols. Barnes cited defensive struggles against Alabama as the reason he made the change. He even admitted he considered starting Jaden Springer as well.
“We had thought about starting he and Jaden both, but from Jaden’s injury Saturday, he wasn’t able to practice on Monday and he only had one day of prep to get ready,” Barnes said. “I’ve said it before – we are going to keep changing the lineup – we are going to keep searching until we find the exact role for everybody.
“Most of these lineups we change, because of the defensive purposes. The last game, (Santiago Vescovi) and (Victor Bailey Jr.) were terrible on defense, especially with the points they gave up, and our guards can’t do that. When they are not playing to the scouting report, I don’t care how many points they score because they are giving up more and if they score 10, but give up 12 or 14, it can’t happen.”
Johnson scored 15 points in his first career start for the Vols. He was 4-of-8 shooting from the field while adding two rebounds, a steal and an assist. The five-star freshman made six consecutive critical free throws at the end of the game to help put the Vols in the win column.