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Johnson, Springer guide No. 11 Tennessee to victory over Kentucky

The start to Saturday night’s game between No. 11 Tennessee and Kentucky inside of Rupp Arena derived from one of Rick Barnes’ worst nightmares.

Vols’ senior forward John Fulkerson picked up his second foul less than four minutes into the game and was forced to take a seat on the bench for the remainder of the first half. Santiago Vescovi then joined Fulkerson with 16:21 remaining after he picked up his second. Olivier Nkamhoua, who was playing for Fulkerson, followed up Vescovi and picked up his second foul less than 20 seconds later to give the Vols three players with at least two fouls at the first media timeout.

As if two starters and the first post player off the bench being in foul trouble wasn’t enough, the Vols (13-4, 6-4 SEC) had six players with two fouls by the time halftime rolled around. Keon Johnson, Jaden Springer and Yves Pons joined Fulkerson, Vescovi and Nkamhoua in the prestigious two-foul club with Tennessee trailing Kentucky 42-34 at the break.

UT shot 44.1% from the field over the opening 20 minutes while holding the Cats to 35.1% shooting, but it was the 15 team fouls that led to the Vols trailing. Kentucky (5-12, 4-6 SEC) entered the bonus with 14:09 to go in the first half and shot free throws the remainder of the way. At the break, the Cats were 13-of-15 from the charity stripe while the Vols were 2-of-3.

“I thought we were too aggressive, too physical,” Barnes said following the game. “I am not denying any of those fouls. I haven’t seen them all. I haven’t watched it. During the game, a couple of times, the fouls they called, I thought were fouls. I was just thinking maybe we need some of those.”

The disparity in foul calls evened out to begin the second half, but Kentucky still maintained a near double-digit for the opening 10 minutes. Tennessee cut it to four on a Victor Bailey Jr. three with 14:33 remaining, but the Cats immediately responded with an 8-2 run to push the lead to 10, 58-48, with 12:00 remaining.

“We had two back-to-back turnovers,” Barnes said when asked about the timeout he called at that point in the game to stop the Kentucky run. “I said we can’t get back in the game if we’re going to keep turning the ball over. You have to get stops, we have to get a shot every time… We worked through it. It was a game of two different halves, obviously.”

Tennessee was able to work through the second half struggles because of the play of its two five-star freshmen guards. UT responded to UK’s run with a 12-0 run of its own courtesy of eight points from Johnson and Springer to take a 60-58 lead with 8:37 remaining. It was John Calipari’s turn to call a timeout.

“They bullied us, and they are freshman,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They were the best two guards on the court, whether they are freshmen, seniors, sophomores, whatever, they were the best two. But again, they were best two because they were physical and they bullied us.

“It wasn’t like they were jacking threes and going nuts. They just went to wherever they wanted to on the court and either went into your body and shot or jumped over and you shot.”

Calipari’s timeout didn’t workout the way Barnes’ timeout did. The Vols continued on their run, extending it to 26-6 to take a commanding 74-64 lead with 3:58 left in the game. Johnson and Springer scored 18 straight at one point on their way to combining for 31 points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block in the second half. For the game, they combined for 50 points.

“What we did in the second half was what we were trying to get done in the first half,” Barnes said. “Trying to get going downhill, 94 feet. And I thought those guys got in a rhythm there where you could just feel that they had that attack mode.”

Johnson was Tennessee’s leading-scorer with a career-high 27 points on 9-of 16 shooting. Springer also scored a career-high, chipping in 23 points on 9-of-17 shooting to go along with five rebounds, three blocks and a steal.

“You have to give credit to coach,” Springer said. “He told us to be aggressive, get down hill and to make things happen. So, we just stuck to the game plan and it worked out.”

“We’ve been trying to start playing faster, but under control,” Johnson added. “I feel like we were converting on their turnovers and whenever we got the ball off rebounds we tried to push the ball up the court as fast as possible and we were converting there as well.”

Tennessee has now won six out of the last nine meetings against Kentucky following its seventh win all-time at Rupp Arena. Barnes became the only active head coach with three wins at Rupp, while Fulkerson and Pons are the first Vols to play in three wins in the historic venue.

The Vols now turn their attention to a rematch with Florida on Wednesday night at 8 p.m. ET inside of Thompson-Boling Arena. The Gators beat Tennessee back on Jan. 19 in Gainesville 75-49.

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