Rick Barnes was upbeat following Saturday’s SEC Tournament semifinal game that saw top-seeded Alabama knock off his Volunteers. The Crimson Tide defeated Tennessee 73-68 despite trailing 40-31 at the half and by as many as 15 in the opening minutes of the second half.
19 turnovers doomed Tennessee, 11 of which came in the second half as they allowed Alabama to come from behind and win. The Crimson Tide outscored the Vols 35-15 over the final 16:42 of play.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Barnes said afterwards. “We played Alabama twice, we have yet to play them with a full roster. Not in Knoxville, not today. Not having John (Fulkerson) hurt us. When (Alabama) started making their push, we were tired. Some of those turnovers were a result of that.
“Our guys played their hearts out on the defensive end. You look at what we did, I think we guarded them as well as they’ve been guarded all year. I think our guys did an unbelievable job. We don’t care if they shoot 40 threes, 15 of them is not going to beat us. We’re going to get the guys that we want to shoot them to shoot them. For the most part that happened. We rebounded the ball well, got out and ran. Great job today with deflections.”
Tennessee was without Fulkerson due to two elbows he took from Florida’s Omar Payne in the Vols’ 78-66 win over the Gators the day prior in the quarterfinals. Fulkerson left the game with 17:10 remaining in the second half and didn’t return due to a facial fracture and concussion. His status for next weekend’s NCAA Tournament is unclear.
Not only were the Vols without Fulkerson against the Tide, they were also without Josiah-Jordan James for much of the game due to foul trouble. James, despite receiving some questionable foul calls, managed to tally Tennessee’s best plus/minus of +9 in just 17 minutes. Without Fulkerson and James, the Vols had just five regular rotation players available.
“When (Alabama) started coming back, no doubt we were fatigued,” Barnes said. “(James) getting in foul trouble was huge. During those times of the game when we’re struggling like that, that’s when he really knits it all together. We didn’t have him as much as we wanted to in those situations. I felt like our offensive rhythm, when we got fatigued, we got away from it.
“I know how hard (we) played, how bad (the players) wanted to win. Sixth-ranked team, we talk about turning it over 19 times. We turned (Alabama) over 17 times… Looking back, there’s always second-guessing, I wish I would have done something there at the end of the game to help them a little bit more… Not having Fulky or especially Josiah in that situation, those are most of the situations we work with with those guys.”
Tennessee now turns its attention to the NCAA Tournament while swallowing the disappointment of what transpired in Nashville and the thought of ‘what could have been.’ It’ll find out their seeding and what their path to the Final Four will look like at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday evening when the NCAA reveals this year’s bracket.
The Vols will remain in Nashville through Sunday night and head for Indianapolis on Monday morning. Barnes will depart from Music City with hope that what took place will help his team in the tournament that matters most.
“I think this tournament is going to help,” Barnes said. “We had to make do with some lineups because of Fulky being out. That’s what we’ve had to deal with all year. Once we think we’re getting in a rhythm, something happens. I can’t give these guys enough credit for hanging in there. I know this, they’re excited about next week, and we should be.”
“I’m excited. I am. I just told them that ‘I’m not going to let you guys put your heads down.’ I’ve been doing this too long. I’ve had teams lose in the semifinals, go on and have a great run. I said it coming in this week, You want to be a champion. I don’t care if it’s the regular season, conference tournament champion, you want to be a champion. But the one you really want to be every year is in the big fight for the big one. I said that when I walked on this campus six years ago. I said it my entire career. We want to be a team that’s in this tournament every year. I’ve seen enough in my lifetime, more than these guys, I’ve seen teams get it and go. I like where our team is right now. I’m not afraid to play whoever we got to play. This team is going to play their hearts out.”
All hands will have to be on deck in Indianapolis due to the uncertainty of Fulkerson’s injury. Uros Plavsic played well in Fulkerson’s absence and fellow sophomore forward Olivier Nkamhoua has played well in spurts this season. But you never know who may end up in foul trouble like James did against Alabama. Pair the uncertainty of Fulkerson’s status with the uncertainty of what could happen in any give game and you quickly realize March Madness has officially arrived.
“We’re disappointed,” Barnes said. “We really are. We came into this game fully expecting to win, even without John being here. Again, the mistakes we are making right now, we can still fix them. The competitiveness that we’re playing with and the determination and the prep in the last really two weeks has really gone to a level that we’re excited about.”