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Big 12/SEC Challenge: Kansas hangs on to beat Tennessee, 74-68

A solid effort.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In a spot where Tennessee just began to seem to figure things out, they drew a Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup with No. 3 Kansas, on the road, at that. How would this young team handle life on the road at one of the nation’s most hostile arenas?

Not too bad, actually. Here’s how things played out.

Yet another slow start

The start of this game should have surprised no one — two top 15 defensive teams were feeling each other out, each trying to find a little offensive rhythm. Kansas was working to find their footing down two players, David McCormack and Silvia De Sousa, who were both suspended following a brawl against Kansas State.

Those suspensions shifted the pressure directly on to Udoka Azubuike, the star center for the Jayhawks. The 7-0, 270 pound big man was going to have to keep his nose clean and stay out of foul trouble with a short bench behind him.

Tennessee knew that, so they attacked him. After nine minutes, Azubuike picked up his second foul, forcing him to the bench.

Fulky, Vescovi and Pons push Tennessee ahead

The Volunteers were riding John Fulkerson once again, who opened the game aggressive for the second game in a row. A quick seven points from Fulky allowed Tennessee to weather the early Kansas storm — and get Azubuike on the bench. Bill Self was forced to play a wing at the center spot in his absence.

Santiago Vescovi and Yves Pons went to work in the middle minutes of the first half. It was Vescovi first, hitting from deep, then Pons two more times. Suddenly Tennessee had grown its lead to 20-13 with eight minutes to play before halftime.

Azubuike changes the game

The lead was pushed out to 26-18 before Self turned back to Azubuike. The result? An instant spurt — an 8-0 run to tie things up at 26. The Jayhawks took the lead shortly after from the free throw stripe.

Also in that spurt, Fulkerson picked up foul No. 2 and Barnes put him on the bench.

That 8-0 run? Turned into 12-0 run, quickly. Tennessee had no answer for Azubuike with Fulky off the floor. Uros Plavsic and Olivier Nkamhoua couldn’t handle the Kansas big man, but then again, very few can.

Tennessee was able to stop the bleeding, however. It was Vescovi spurring the Tennessee offense, finding Pons underneath for the slam. Pons kept things going on the defensive end, doing his part to keep Azubuike in check.

But you can only do so much about the No. 3 team in the nation. Kansas ended on a 6-0 run, and an 18-4 run overall since Azubuike re-entered the game. He finished the half with nine points and five rebounds, but his defensive presence was so obvious.

One big issue for the Vols was the play of Josiah James, who had zero points and five turnovers. Kansas took advantage, scoring 14 points off of turnovers in the first half. If Tennessee was going to make this happen, that’s the obvious thing they had to clean up.

Tennessee hangs around

Another quick 5-0 run for Kansas opened the second half. The Tennessee offense struggled until Jordan Bowden hit his first bucket, a three, a couple of minutes in. Bowden got to the free throw line on the next possession, a good sign for the Volunteers after Bowden found himself in foul trouble in the first half. Next possession? Another three from Jordan Bowden.

Tennessee’s senior guard was alive and well, looking like the good version of the streaky shooter we’ve seen for so many years. Still, his efforts only cut the Kansas lead to seven points with 14 minutes left to play.

But Tennessee didn’t go away. Bowden kept working, along with Yves Pons to keep Kansas in sight. The Vols made some progress once again with Azubuike on the bench, getting the lead down to 55-50 midway through the second half.

With 8:25 to play, Azubuike picked up his fourth foul. If you’ve read to this point, you know how big of a deal that is. Pons hit two free throws to take us to a 62-56 game. It was a career day for Pons, who had already his his career high in points with several minutes to play.

Tennessee remained within 5-7 points over the next few minutes. Finally, Pons cut the lead to just three points with a bucket in the post once again. It was a 66-63 game with 4:30 to play. Thanks to an explosion from Bowden, the Volunteers had a legitimate shot to win late in Lawrence.

Azubuike entered the game again out of the break. Tennessee fouled him, forcing him to beat them at the line. But the seven-footer hit both shots, then hit one of two on the next trip.

But John Fulkerson had an answer. It was another spin move into a layup for Fulky, who slashed the lead back down to three points with two minutes to play. But Azubuike went back to the foul line again, hitting one more to make it a four point game.

A turnover from Bowden on the next possession made things tougher on the Vols. Dotson hit another free throw for the Jayhawks, but missed the second. Fulkerson missed a contested turnaround at the other end, then Pons was sent packing by Azubuike.

That would do it. Kansas held on to their 3-5 point advantage down the stretch, keeping Azubuike on the floor and out of his final foul. The Vols came up just short, but the effort was a positive development overall.

Final Score: Kansas 74, Tennessee 68

Yves Pons ended up with a career high 24 points, hitting on 8-14 shots from the field. Bowden added 19 points, all coming in the second half. Fulkerson contributed 15 points, taking on a premier defender today.

The difference ended up being Azubuike, who posted a ridiculous +19 when he was on the floor for the Jayhawks.

At the end of the day, you’ll certainly take this effort from Tennessee. Barnes and his staff really do seem to be turning a bit of a corner with this roster, which could pay dividends in league play down the road.