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No. 9 Tennessee Volunteers escape the Arkansas Razorbacks, 79-74

It was a tale of two halves for the Vols offense.

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Tennessee
Santiago Vescovi’s clutch free throws were the difference in the game.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 9 Tennessee Volunteers (8-1) are all about some irony after their win over the Arkansas Razorbacks.

The Vols struggled from the charity stripe all night long, but when it came to making their free throws when it mattered, the Vols were money. Tennessee was just 10-of-16 entering the last 1:46 of the game, but went 10-of-10 from that point on, which sealed the deal.

Josiah Jordan-James and Victory Bailey Jr. led the team with 17 points each and John Fulkerson led the team with eight rebounds as they showed that they were over last game’s loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Connor Vanover started off the scoring with a quick bucket in the opening minute to put the Razorbacks up, 2-0. Keon Johnson was able to tie it up a few possessions later, but Arkansas immediately answered to retake the lead.

Tennessee’s struggles on offense from the last game continued into the first 5:20 of the Arkansas matchup. The Hogs were able to build a 10-4 lead thanks to 3-of-10 shooting from the Vols. Almost 2:30 minutes had passed since Tennessee made its last bucket, but back-to-back shots from James made it a 10-9 game with 13:57 left in the first half.

The Vols eventually tied the game at 13, but a 5-0 run put the Hogs up, 18-13. At this point, Tennessee was getting outplayed and out-hustled. One stat proving the latter observation was the rebound margin, which was (+8) in favor of the Razorbacks during the first 10:00 of the game. The lead grew to 20-13 before Jaden Springer cashed in to cut Arkansas’ lead to 20-15 with 9:14 left in the first half. Five Arkansas turnovers were really the only thing working in Tennessee’s favor.

Springer’s bucket would ignite a 10-2 run that helped Tennessee nail down its first lead of the game. It didn’t last long, however, as Moses Moody drilled a 3 on the subsequent Arkansas possession to re-claim the lead at 25-23. The Razorbacks were able to maintain their lead and a quick 5-0 run later on had them up 33-26, but James was fouled as he made a 3. Tennessee had a chance to make it a one-score game, but James couldn’t hit his free throw and Tennessee trailed, 33-29 with 1:59 to go in the first half.

The Vols ended the first half the same way they begun it: By not finishing and missing shots they should make. Connor Vanover blocked a Springer layup which led to an Arkansas bucket to close out the half with a score of 40-33 in favor of the Razorbacks.

Excellent shot selection was the key for the Razorbacks in the first half. They shot 57% from the field in the first half that included a 5-of-11 mark from downtown. A (+13) rebound margin and 15 points from the bench were also key factors in building their lead.

Tennessee, on the other hand, was just 14-of-34 (41%) from the field. That included a dismal 2-of-10 from 3 and the Vols were now 6-of-31 from downtown over the last three halves of basketball. Arkansas’ 11 turnovers were the only reason the deficit was respectable.

The Vols scored the first three points of the second half and would eventually tie the game up at 42 within the first four minutes of the game. They were 4-of-8 from the field, but were still struggling from beyond the arc.

But Arkansas wasn’t. Vance Jackson sunk one from the top corner to break the tie and give the Hogs a 3-point lead. It was night and day in terms of 3-point production for both teams. Arkansas boasted a 46% rate while the Vols were a measly 15%.

A Jackson free throw made it a 46-42 game. After the free throw was made a major sequence occurred where Fulkerson made a great shot down low and then Arkansas turned the ball over, giving Tennessee a chance to tie or take the lead. Springer, choosing the latter, sunk a 3 of his own from the corner to give Tennessee a 47-46 lead with 12:46 left in the game. That lead quickly grew to three points after Santiago Vescovi hit a layup, but Arkansas wasn’t going to just let Tennessee start pulling away.

Vanover tied the game back up at 49 after he was given the opportunity to convert and and-1 play. Bailey hit a 3 on the next possession and the back-and-forth was officially on.

Tennessee’s lead grew to 5, but a dumb foul on JD Notae led to a 4-point play that made it a 56-55 game with 10:13 left in the game. Notae was fouled as he attempted a 3-pointer and somehow made the shot as he was falling forward. A Springer turnover led to a Notae layup that gave Arkansas a 57-56 lead, but another Bailey 3 put the Vols back up, 59-57.

Jackson made another shot, this time a layup, to tie the game up at 59 apiece. Tennessee had a chance to take the lead, but Springer missed the first of a 1-and-1 free throw opportunity. Yves Pons bailed him out on the next possession, however, as he hit a jumper to give Tennessee a 61-59 lead with 8:01 to go.

The Vols were playing much better on offense in the second half. They were 10-of-16 from the field at this point and 3-of-6 from downtown. It was crucial they start to hit their free throws, though. Especially considering that it was looking like this game would be going down to the wire.

A scary (and pretty stupid) moment occurred when Fulkerson attempted a practice dunk during a dead period and appeared to injure himself. He was forced to leave the game and was limping off the court.

But there was a big sigh of relief not long afterward when he came back on to the court to finish out the game. Both parties really dodged a bullet on that one.

Tennessee was able to build an 8-point lead, but the Razorbacks went on 6-0 run in 2:00 to make it a 69-67 game with 2:06 left in the game.

Johnson hit both free throws on the next possession to make it a 4-point game, but Notae scored on the other end to make it a one-score game again.

Things became even more intense after a crucial Tennessee turnover gave the Razorbacks a free chance to tie the game. Jackson was left alone at the top of the key after the Hogs almost turned it over themselves, but he couldn’t make the shot. Vanover almost had the tip-in, but the ball bounced out and the Vols were able to recover. Johnson was fouled and would go to the charity stripe.

He made both —again— and Arkansas couldn’t do anything with the next possession. Johnson was fouled yet again, but only hit 1-of-2 from the line. That one miss came back to bite the Vols instantly as Jalen Tate drilled a 3 on the subsequent possession to make it a 75-74 game with :24.6 left in the game.

Vescovi was fouled with :14.1 left in the game and would shoot two free throws. He made to put the Vols up, 77-74. Tate couldn’t hit the 3 on the other end and the Vols claimed the rebound with a chance to officially put the game on ice.

James hit both free throws and the Vols would go on to win, 79-74.

Tennessee next travels to College Station to take on the Texas A&M Aggies. Tipoff is set for 2PM EST on Saturday, January 9.

You can check out the final score and stats here.