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Three Observations: (5) Tennessee 78, (4) Florida 66

Four-seed Tennessee defeated five-seed Florida 78-66 in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament on Friday afternoon. The Vols advance to Saturday’s semifinals to face top-seeded Alabama with a trip to the SEC title game on the line.

Sophomore guard Santiago Vescovi led the way for Tennessee with 14 points, while Keon Johnson chipped in 13 points, respectively. Josiah-Jordan James dropped in 12 points, and Jaden Springer and Yves Pons scored 11 points apiece.

Guard Tre Mann led the way for the Gators, scoring 30 points on 5-for-11 shooting from three. 28 of Mann’s points came in the second half after Tennessee held him to just two points over the first 20 minutes of the game. Tyree Appleby was the only other Gator to reach double-figures, scoring 14 points.

Down Goes Fulky

While Tennessee may have advanced to the semifinals for the third consecutive SEC Tournament, the story following the game was the elbow Florida’s Omar Payne threw at John Fulkerson.

Fulkerson had to leave the game against the Gators with 17:10 remaining in the second half after Payne delivered two unnecessary elbows. The first one connected with Fulkerson’s throat, while the second one connected with Fulkerson’s head. He would not return to the game.

“I didn’t see it,” Vols head coach Rick Barnes said following the game. “Heard it wasn’t good at all, obviously. They did take him to the hospital just for observation. I think it was more for his eye than anything else. Tomorrow, I don’t know right now if we could say we can count on him. Again, we’ll wait and see. My gut feeling, he took two pretty good licks right there and I’d be surprised if he is available.”

“They said he was fine, they just were taking him to the hospital for observation. Somebody mentioned to me about the eye. That’s all I know.”

Fulkerson was playing well prior to the elbow. He had eight points on 3-for-4 shooting in 19 minutes when Payne took it upon himself to end Fulkerson’s afternoon. Fulkerson also had a rebound and a block.

On the bright side of Fulkerson’s injury, Tennessee responded well. The Vols led 36-25 at the time of the elbow, and after a four-point possession as a result of the Flagrant 2 foul against Payne, they led 40-25. UT would go on to lead by as many as 17 and out-score Florida 47-44 in the second half to win by 12.

“They were very upset,” Barnes said. “Our guys have such great respect and love for Fulky, but for each other. We had to calm them down, no doubt about it, because they felt like it was unnecessary.”

“It pissed us off,” Pons said after blocking a program record nine shots. “It had nothing to do with the basketball court.”

The Reigning SEC DPOY

Pons was terrific both before Fulkerson’s injury, and after his fellow senior left the game. Pons blocked a program record nine shots that also tied an SEC Tournament record to hold Florida to 34% from the floor and just 18 points in the paint.

“I thought he was terrific,” Barnes said. “He was locked in. You could tell it. You could tell the last couple days. From start to the finish, what he had to do down there, the way he plays. I thought he was locked in both ends. Again, he was terrific, he really was. His blocks were great.

“We told our guys at halftime, ‘Hey, Yves going to come get them, you have to clean it up for them.’ For the most part in the second half, again, that happened for the most part. I think one of them he went up and tried to block it, we didn’t have the backside sealed down. He was locked in. I kept looking at him asking if he needed a blow. He said, ‘I’m good, I’m good.’ Just happy for him because, again, he was outstanding.”

The performance marked the 20th time in his career that Pons has rejected at least three shots and the ninth time he’s sent away at least four shots in a singles game. Pons also scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds.

Up Next: Alabama

Without Fulkerson, Tennessee will need contributions from Uros Plavsic, Olivier Nkamhoua, and E.J. Anosike against Alabama. Plavsic got the call against the Gators, as Barnes felt like his size and length could disrupt Florida. He delivered, scoring two points and grabbing a rebound in five minutes.

“This time of year you got to do what you got to do,” Barnes said. “I thought Uros was terrific. I like to think if we go to Olivier (Nkamhoua) or E.J. (Anosike), those guys will be ready to roll. Whatever we’re going to have to do, this time of year, one game at a time. You try to win and move on.”

Tennessee and Alabama are scheduled to tip at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN tomorrow afternoon. The Crimson Tide beat the Vols 71-63 in Knoxville earlier this season, which was just the second game of conference play.

“I go back to that game, Yves Pons picked up two quick fouls,” Barnes said. “Jaden (Springer) was playing well. I think he drove it, if I can remember right, turned his ankle. It got away from us. We didn’t handle it very well. That was really one of the first games I thought where we were down and didn’t know quite how to respond.

“I think they’ve gotten better. I’d like to think that we’ve gotten better. We’re going to need everybody. If Fulkerson is not available, we’re going to need more guys to step up and help us. We’re going to have to defend a team, I think one of you guys mentioned to Santi, about threes, getting to the rim. Again, we’re going to have to play good offense ourselves, take care of the basketball, not have those on-ball turnovers that lead to easy baskets.”

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