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Tennessee survives Colorado to win season opener, 56-47

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NCAA Basketball: Colorado at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

After a long wait — actually the longest of any top 25 team in the country — Tennessee came out and started hot.

A 12-2 run in the first five minutes had the Volunteers off and running, powered by Oregon transfer Victor Bailey Jr. Bailey hit a couple of three-point attempts to begin his Tennessee career, pushing the Vols out in front of a solid Colorado group.

Rick Barnes’ first starting five of 2020-21? Santiago Vescovi, VJ Bailey, Josiah-Jordan James, Yves Pons, John Fulkerson. Tennessee’s two five-star freshmen started this one on the bench. Both Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson were held scoreless in the first half of their debut game.

Still, Tennessee overwhelmed the Buffs early on, growing their lead to a 26-10 advantage. The Volunteers’ obvious advantage early on came on the defensive end, where Tennessee stifled Colorado out of the gates.

However, the Buffaloes would find their groove in the closing minutes of the first half. McKinley Wright and Jeriah Horne settled in to bring Colorado back, slowly but surely closing the gap before the halftime break.

By the end of the first half, Tennessee’s lead had been slashed to 31-24. Colorado kept that momentum going to enter the second half, cutting Tennessee’s lead down to 33-31.

Keon Johnson scored his first points as a Volunteer in a big spot, pushing Tennessee’s lead out to 35-31 after forcing a big defensive stop. Santiago Vescovi followed that with a three, moving the Vols back to a seven point advantage.

Five-star freshman Jaden Springer connected on his first bucket as a Volunteer with 12 minutes left in the second half. His three helped supplement a struggling offense, keeping Tennessee’s lead at seven points. Josiah-Jordan James kept that momentum rolling, connecting on an and-one to get the Tennessee lead back to ten points.

Both teams clamped down defensively over the next several minutes, leading us into the under eight minute break with Tennessee holding a 45-37 advantage.

A Keon Johnson assist led to a Jaden Springer three gave Tennessee an 11 point lead with under six to play in the game. Johnson handed over a couple of turnovers on the following possessions though, and the Buffs took advantage.

Colorado cut Tennessee’s lead back to 50-43 with under four minutes to play following two transition buckets.

The two sides traded buckets out of the timeout break. John Fulkerson came up with the much needed answer for the Volunteers, stabilizing Tennessee late in the going. However, Colorado was able to close the gap after an offensive foul allowed Jeriah Horne to hit two free throws.

With 1:17 to go, Tennessee came up with a steal and immediately took a timeout. The score was 52-47, and Rick Barnes wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page entering the final seconds of the game.

Fulkerson was fouled on his way to the basket, then connected on two free throws to seal this one up.

Tennessee held on to win, 56-47.

Fulkerson and Vescovi were the only Volunteers to finish with double figures, each ending with 11 points a piece. Jaden Springer ended with six points in his debut, while Keon Johnson finished with four.

Tennessee will be back on the floor on Saturday against Cincinnati.