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Tennessee hangs on to beat Florida, 63-58

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

The Tennessee Volunteer basketball team has been frustratingly, maddeningly inconsistent this year. Prior to Saturday, the Vols had lost three of their last four games and two of those losses came by 15 or more points. In one of those games, against Auburn, the Vols led by as many as 17 points and lost. Tennessee led by as many as 19 points Saturday against Florida and damn near lost again.

With around two minutes left in the game, Florida cut Tennessee’s lead to one point. But in the following 60-ish seconds, Tennessee’s savior John Fulkerson hit his first career 3-pointer and slammed home a Jordan Bowden missed layup to help the Vols bring home the win.

The Vols started strong and appeared on a mission to get the ball inside and run their offense through the post. Tennessee’s first 10 points all came from inside the paint as the Volunteer guards made post touches for John Fulkerson and Yves Pons an integral part of Tennessee’s offensive attack. Tennessee went on to outscore Florida 18-8 in the paint during the first half.

Josiah-Jordan James had his best game in what feels like forever, and you could see the difference in his approach early in the first half. He set of pace for Tennessee’s offense early by hitting two 3s in the game’s first 10 minutes.

James finished the game with just 12 points, but he looked like the player we saw mid-season — the 6-foot-6 guard who was leading the team in rebounding. he’s not been a guy who lights up the scoreboard with points, but when you check the box score, you see all the ways he leaves his mark. Against the Gators, he finished with eight rebounds, six assists and two blocks. He led or was tied for the team’s lead in all three of those categories.

Tennessee held the Gators to a season-low 17 first-half points, and turnovers played a major role in the Vols taking a double-digit lead into halftime. Florida turned the ball over 11 times, and the Vols converted those 11 giveaways into 13 points while committing just four turnovers in the game’s first 20 minutes.

Tennessee played its cleanest game in nearly a month, committing just nine turnovers and notching its first game with fewer than 10 giveaways since the Kentucky game on Feb. 8th.

Tennessee stretched its lead out to as many as 19 points in the second half, but the Gators responded with a 23-6 run and eventually cut the lead down to just one point before Fulkerson saved the day for the Vols. Fulkerson finished with a team-high 22 points on 10-15 shooting from the field. He also went 1-4 from the free throw line, and perhaps he did it intentionally to give coach Rick Barnes something to complain about during the post-game press conference. That’s a joke and obviously not true, but as a team Tennessee missed nearly as many free throws as it hit and finished 7-13 from the charity stripe.

Pons was the only starter who didn’t score in double figures, scoring eight points. He also had a critical block of an attempted Florida layup with just seconds left in the game that helped seal the victory for Tennessee.

This was win No. 16 for the Vols this season with just two regular season games remaining on the schedule. Tennessee travels to Rupp for a game with the 8th-ranked Wildcats and then gets another crack at Bruce Pearl and the 15th-ranked Tigers before the SEC Tournament cranks up.