Tennessee came into Sunday looking to grab the fourth seed in next week’s SEC Tournament, while giving Yves Pons and John Fulkerson the senior day the pair of senior forwards deserve.
It looked like the Vols (17-7, 10-7 SEC) we’ve seen over the past few weeks for most of the first half, as Florida (13-7, 9-6 SEC) brought the intensity, while the Vols lacked it. Even though Fulkerson started the game with four points, the Gators were taking advantage of Tennessee on the glass. It felt like we were seeing a repeat of what Vols fans have witnessed all season.
Florida jumped out to a 25-17 lead, as the Gators were shooting 11-for-14 from the field when the under-eight timeout had rolled around. Tennessee seemed content on settling for the usual mid-range jumpers and not not attacking the offensive glass. At the under-four minute break, Florida led 33-23. The Vols looked stagnant and were shooting 18% from behind the perimeter.
Then came the spurt that gave Tennessee the life it was looking for before halftime. The Vols went on an 8-0 run over 2:35 and got the Gators lead down to 33-28 at the half. Fulkerson led the Vols with 10 points and the Vols defense held the Gators to 3:57 without a field goal.
As Tennessee headed to the locker room, the upcoming second half might’ve been the biggest it would play all season. The Vols needed a shot of life and that’s exactly what they’d get from the defense and around the rim. Though Florida led 39-34 at the first media break of the second half, Pons had ignited a fire under his teammates on one possession.
Pons had three consecutive offensive rebounds, leading to a Tennessee basket and the Vols sensing an upcoming spark. Pons had already grabbed seven rebounds in the 2nd half, as the Vols were fighting their way back into this game.
Jaden Springer scored his first basket at the 12:34 mark of the second half and the Vols were starting to break the Gators. As the under-12 break approached, the Vols led 42-41 and didn’t look back. Tennessee was currently on a 32-12 run over the previous 14 minutes, leading to a 15-2 run during this second half stretch.
One of the most consistent scorers for Tennessee has been Victor Bailey Jr., and he didn’t disappoint on Sunday. He had eights points in the second half, coming at the most convenient time for the Vols. Tennessee continued to cause problems for the Florida offense, as it held them to 2-for-11 shooting from the field during this run.
Florida didn’t record their second offensive rebound since the 4:00 mark of the first half till late in the second half. This was a dominant defensive performance for the Vols in the second half and the two seniors deserved it.
As the final few minutes trickled off the clock inside of Thompson-Boling Arena, the Vols were closing out the SEC regular season by wrapping up the double-bye in Nashville. This team has found so many different ways to lose games, but not today.
Fulkerson finished with 14 points on Sunday and was emotional coming off the court in the final few seconds, as the Tennessee crowd gave him a standing ovation. His teammates surrounding him, Fulkerson kissed the TBA floor, waved goodbye to the crowd, knowing they meant just as much to him, as he did to them.
The other senior who was finishing up his Tennessee career took his bow next, as Pons finished out his Tennessee career at TBA with a salute to the crowd. He finished with eight rebounds and five points.
This was like any other Tennessee game this season on the court. The Vols went spurts without scoring, hoping their defense would keep them close enough for one last strike. On Sunday that’s exactly what you got. This team has the ability to play with anyone in the country, but it all depends on which team shows up.
If the second half Vols show up in Nashville, then this could make for an interesting SEC Tournament for the boys clad in orange. While only shooting 14% from behind the perimeter, Tennessee still found a way to win by doing what it does best, attacking the basket. Keon Johnson was one of the sparks for this team today, as he finished with 14 points.
But today was about Fulkerson and Pons busting their tail to make sure their potential last memory at TBA wasn’t another loss that should’ve been a win. They were hell-bent on pushing this team to the end. Now, let’s see if they can push them far into March, because it’s tourney time.