Pons’ record-setting defensive performance propels Vols past Gators

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    Tennessee entered Friday’s game against Florida looking to put together consecutive performances of consistent basketball. The Vols had beaten the Gators just six days ago in Knoxville, looking especially balanced in the second half.

    It didn’t take long for the Vols to get into rhythm, as John Fulkerson scored the first basket, on the set play in the paint. This was the type of game where Fulkerson could thrive, especially with his matchups. But, Yves Pons wanted to get in on the fun in the 1st half as well.

    On the defensive front, Yves Pons had 3 blocks for the Vols, as the second media break hit. Tennessee led  16-10 and opened the game playing tough on the defensive end. As the Gators were driving the basket, the Vols defense was swarming in. Thankfully for Tennessee, Florida was also 2-11 from the field during this stretch.

    Tennessee had 14 points in the paint as the under eight break came and went, with Yves Pons recording his 5th block of the game to that point. the Vols held the Gators scoreless for 3:52, giving them the opportunity to stretch the lead. But, as we’ve seen with Tennessee, they can also go on a horrible scoring drought at the worst time.

    The Vols were 0-8 from the field and hadn’t scored in over 3:26, leading the Gators to get out on a quick 7-0 run. Yes, Tennessee led 28-19 at this point, but things could’ve been a lot worse for Florida. One thing Tennessee continued to do was drive the basket. The Vols had already gotten into the bonus at the 6:00 mark of the 1st half.

    As halftime came, the Vols led 31-22, but they were 1-11 from the field to end the first half. If it weren’t for Santiago Vescovi’s 3-pointer, it would’ve been close to 6:00 without a basket. Josiah-Jordan James led the Vols with 8 points in the first half, as Yves Pons had 6 blocks. Tennessee did all the right things defensively, but those stretches continued to hurt them.

    If you thought the first half was intense, the 15:11 mark in the 2nd half brought out a whole different fire. After going up for a rebound, John Fulkerson was hit twice by elbows from Omar Payne. Things were so heated, Yves Pons had to be held back, as Fulkerson laid on the court in pain. Payne was ejected from the game and Fulkerson headed to the locker room. He was ruled out of the game later on during the 2nd half, but he had already looked wobbly heading to the back.

    As the under 12 break hit, the Vols led 47-36, even as they were on a 3:00 scoring drought. Tennessee started to pickup their pace after a huge 3-pointer from Victor Bailey Jr. that sent the sparse crowd in orange to their feet. The Vols were dominating in the paint and looking to take complete control of this game.

    Tennessee pushed it to 57-43 at the under eight break, thanks in part to their aggression in the paint and 12 fast break points. This team was doing everything they could to put the Gators away, but Tre Mann was trying to keep it close, as he finished with 30 points.

    But, this was Tennessee’s day, proving it on the boards and in the paint. As the Vols led 69-53 at the final media break of the game, Vescovi nailed another big three-pointer to almost certainly put this game away. The Vols had hit 6-8 FG’s during this stretch, where they also took over on the boards.

    Even without Fulkerson for most of the 2nd half, the Vols found their scorers in different fashion. Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson continued to attack the basket and combined for 26 points. The Vols finished with five different players in double-digits.

    Yves Pons had 9 blocks on the day, to go along with his 11 points. He continued to be a force to reckon with on the defensive end, as the Gators struggled in the paint. Pons tied the SEC Tournament record for blocks in a game and broke the Tennessee record for blocks in a game.

    As the final buzzer went off, Tennessee had won 78-66 and it never felt that close. The Vols put together a hard fought 2nd half, even when they went scoreless over periods of time. The defense held down everyone expect Tre Mann, which they’ll give you every game.

    This was a Tennessee team who didn’t fail down the stretch, they had their moments, but they never wavered. The Vols have the talent to beat Alabama, but with Rick Barnes saying he’d be surprised if Fulkerson plays on Saturday, they will have to find another player to help them do it.

    If the Vols can play like they did today, Alabama will have a fight on their hands on Saturday.

    Trey Wallace is a Knoxville-based journalist who has been covering University of Tennessee athletics since early 2018. His passion for sports is evident in his work and has led him to break some of college football's biggest stories. His vast social media reach and natural podcast proficiency continue to make Wallace one of Vol Nation's most trusted sources. Wallace was born and raised in Mobile, AL and graduated from the University of South Alabama. He loves the mountains as much as the beach and looks forward to living in East Tennessee for many years to come.