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Five Observations: No. 18 Tennessee 80, No. 15 Kansas 61

No. 18 Tennessee rolled to a dominating 80-61 win over No. 15 Kansas on Saturday night inside of Thompson-Boling Arena, securing the SEC a 5-4 win in the annual SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

The Vols (12-3) led for 38 of the 40 minutes after Keon Johnson got them on the board with a jumper in the lane. Tennessee never trailed Kansas (11-6) and led by as many as 26, when it was up 71-45 with 7:24 remaining in the game.

Senior forward Yves Pons led the charge for Tennessee. Pons had 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field and was one of four players to score double-figures. Jaden Springer had 13 points while John Fulkerson and Victor Bailey Jr. each had 11 points apiece, respectively.

Here’s the three biggest observations from UT’s win over the Jayhawks:

Yves Pons apparently hates Kansas

Pons led the way against Kansas for a second consecutive season. On the road last year, Pons scored a team-high 24 points as the Vols nearly upset the then-ranked No. 3 Jayhawks. This year, in his revenge game, he scored a team-high 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field and 2-0f-2 shooting from three.

“Kansas is a special team for me,” Pons said following the game. “This is our third time playing against them. They kicked our butt the first two times, so it’s a great challenge to play them and they’re a great team. I was really excited about getting my revenge and that’s what we did tonight.”

Pons added five rebounds in the midst of staying out of foul trouble for the first time in several games. He didn’t record a block, but he altered several Jayhawk attempts at the rim.

“I thought Yves played really well,” Vols head coach Rick Barnes said. “Carried himself extremely well today, in terms of his body language. The way he looked, like he was in total control of what he wanted to do and how he wanted to go about it.

“I could say the same thing for Fulky. Without question played the best he’s played in a long, long time. The reason people thought we would be good was because of both of those guys. And both of them showed up tonight and did their jobs.”

Both freshmen start

Barnes made the decision to start Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson together for the first time on Saturday night against the Jayhawks. The move paid off as the five-star freshmen duo combined for 21 points, five rebounds, three assists and a steal.

“I thought it played out well,” Barnes said of the change. “All along, we thought a couple times, a couple weeks back, that we were moving in that direction. When Jaden got hurt, it really slowed it down. But the last, really, week, they’ve been able to practice some and put that group together the way you would like to.

“They both have started on and off, so I don’t know if it’s a really big thing for them. I think combined they had 21 points. Turnover wise, I haven’t looked at it that close. I don’t know how many turnovers they had between them. I would say five or six, it’s somewhere there I would think. That’s something they have to cut down on.”

Josiah-Jordan James comes off the bench

If both freshmen started, that means somebody had to come off the bench and the odd man out was Josiah-Jordan James. It was the first time all season James came off the bench. The sophomore guard responded well, however, and was able to produce in 27 minutes.

“It felt pretty good,” James said. “I had been in a bit of a slump during the last few games and hadn’t been shooting the ball very well, but it felt really good to see some shots go in tonight. I credit that to my daily work with the coaches and everything. We didn’t change anything up, but just stayed persistent. Shooting slumps happen. You’re going to miss shots, but you just have to stay consistent with your work and I credit my coaches and my teammates for keeping me uplifted during that time.”

James finished with a near double-double. He scored nine points on 3-of-5 shooting from the three-point line and grabbed 11 rebounds, two of which were on the offensive glass. James also had four assists and a block.

“I thought Josiah came off the bench and did a terrific job,” Barnes said.

Vols dominate the paint

A big part of Tennessee’s success on Saturday night was a result of its dominance in the paint. The Vols not only out-rebounded the Jayhawks, but they didn’t allow any second-chance points. UT out-scored Kansas in the paint 28-22 and had 14 second-chance points.

“We talked about it extensively the last couple days,” Barnes said. “We’re either going to get tough enough to do it or we’re going to struggle, losing games because of it. And we’ve just allowed teams to, honestly, play harder, be more aggressive and not go at it the way we needed to. We said hey, sooner or later we have to do it. We have to rebound the basketball. I thought early we were able to do that. Now we’ll see if we’re tough enough to continue to do it.”

Victor Bailey Jr. steps up

Like James, Victor Bailey Jr. had been struggling of late entering the game. He broke out of his slump against the Jayhawks, however, and finished with 11 points on 2-of-4 shooting from the three-point line. Bailey added four assists, two rebounds and a steal.

“He had his best practice of his career here two days ago where he stayed with the second team,” Barnes said of Bailey. “I’ve said to him all along that his goal should be to make the second team the most competitive team here. He needs to play with the mentality of a combination guard instead of a guy that wants to be a volume shooter, and he was terrific… Tonight, I thought he was locked in.”

Up Next

UT now shifts its attention back to conference play. Following a three-game homestand, the Vols will hit the road for two straight. They’ll begin with a Tuesday night matchup in Oxford against Ole Miss (8-8, 3-6 SEC) at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2 before traveling to Lexington next Saturday to face Kentucky (5-10, 4-4 SEC) at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.

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