The No. 6 Arizona Wildcats (11-1, 0-0) came into Thompson Boling-Arena boasting not only an unblemished record, but the nation’s best offense. However, it was the No. 19 Tennessee Volunteers (9-2, 0-0) that came away as victors thanks to a fast start and a strong defensive performance.
John Fulkerson was incredible on the night, snatching rebounds and making clutch buckets all night long. He finished with a double-double that included a team-leading 24 points and 10 rebounds on 8-of-13 shooting.
Arizona made a run at the end of the game, but the Vols were gritty enough to hold them off en route to their biggest win of the year.
Tennessee won the tip and scored the game’s first points thanks to a second-chance opportunity that Josiah Jordan-James converted. Kennedy Chandler then made two awesome back-to-back plays: Finding Olivier Nkamhou for the alley oop and stealing the ball from an Arizona player en route to an easy layup on the other side of the court. Tennessee quickly led, 6-0, as a result.
Tennessee extended its run to 9-0 after Justin Powell hit one from the deep corner. The Vols defense was on the Wildcats’ butts every play, forcing turnovers and bad shots. Tennessee held the Cats scoreless for the first 3:47 of the game before Benedict Mathurin ended the run with 16:13 left in the first half.
Any positive energy for the Wildcats quickly died as they watched Zakai Ziegler immediately hit a three-pointer on the next possession that ignited a 7-0 run. Tennessee’s hot start featured a 63.7% mark from the floor that included 40% from the arc, out-rebounding Arizona 6-1, and forcing six turnovers in the first five-ish minutes of play. It’s why they led, 16-2, with 14:41 left in the first half.
Later on, it looked like Arizona was about to start building some momentum, but Fulkerson made two straight buckets to calm the Cats. Arizona kept turning the ball over and Tennessee kept getting points off second chances. As the game continued on, Rick Barnes’ squad eventually built its biggest lead of the game, which was 22-7 at that time.
And then the scoring drought came. The Vols proceeded to miss their next five shots and threw in a couple turnovers and some offensive fouls over the next few minutes, which allowed Arizona to cut the lead down to 22-11. But Powell broke them out of the slump and Fulkerson hit a couple layups to put the Vols back up by 15 with 6:17 to go in the first period.
It took the Wildcats over 17 minutes to hit consecutive buckets for the first time in the game, but those buckets were both three-pointers that helped build an 8-0 run that cut Tennessee’s lead to 26-19. The Vols’ lead shrunk to 26-21 thanks to a 6:23 stretch in which they did not make a single shot. But Fulkerson finally ended the misery with an and-1 conversion to push the lead back to three possessions and he even blocked the Cats’ subsequent shot on the other end of the court. Santiago Vescovi and Chandler then made a three and a breakaway layup, respectively, to close the half on an 8-0 run and take a 34-21 lead into halftime.
Tennessee shot 40% from the floor, but was struggling from downtown with a 25% (3-of-12) average. The Vols were +9 in rebounding, however, and 10 of the 24 total rebounds were on offense that helped lead to nine second-chance points for the Vols. Arizona had 12 turnovers and shot just 28.4% from the field in the first half.
It was clear Tennessee’s defense was getting the best of Arizona’s offense. But now it was time to see if the Vols could keep it up or if the Cats were going to figure things out in the second half.
The Vols were able to keep Arizona at bay for the most part and even held a 42-30 lead through the first three minutes of the second half, but a furious 10-2 run by the Cats cut Tennessee’s lead to just two possession at 44-40. Kerr Kriisa led the way with six points on 2-of-2 shooting from downtown as the Vols found themselves in a tight one with 15:45 to go in the game.
Jordan-James came up with a clutch steal and then dropped a trey of his own on the subsequent possession to push Tennessee’s lead to seven points. A Vescovi layup made it a nine-point game and the Vols defense continued to make life hard for the Cats as Kamhoua blocked his second shot of the game a little down the road.
The game continued to hover around the nine-point margin as both teams continue to press on defense and hit the occasional shots. The Vols’ lead did shrink to six at one point, but they eventually made it a 57-47 game with 9:05 remaining.
It was a 12-point game at one point until Arizona cut its deficit down to five points. But Tennessee continued to do what it did all night, which was answer any response that Arizona tried to enact.
That is until the Wildcats made it a two-point game. The situation then became very real when Fulkerson turned the ball over. Arizona now had a chance to tie or take the lead in the 62-60 game.
It was clearly anyone’s game with 5:20 to go.
Christian Koloko tied the game at 62 shortly after thanks to a third-chance bucket, which was ironic considering that’s how Tennessee dominated the first half. Chandler retook the lead by making one of two free throws a little later, which put the score at 63-62. A Tennessee turnover on its next possession prevented the Vols from extending their lead.
But Justin Kier was called for a foul and then Kriisa was hit with a technical, which gave Tennessee a great opportunity to increase its lead with just over four minutes left in the game. Powell made three of four free throws to make it a 66-62 game, but Kier made up for the earlier foul with an immediate three to make it a one-point game again.
Fulkerson was able to get to a loose ball and was fouled by Koloko, which was his fifth of the game and ended his night. The senior proceeded to hit one of his free throws to push the score to 67-65. But a Tennessee foul gave the Wildcats a chance to tie the game.
And that’s exactly what they did. The game now stood at 67-67 with 2:58 remaining.
Tennessee had gone 3:45 without a bucket before Fulkerson came through with a huge jumper to make it a 69-67 game. Arizona then turned it over on the next possession and Fulkerson was fouled again. He hit both free throws this time around to give the Vols a 71-67 lead with 2:18 left in the game.
The Wildcats quickly made it a 71-69 game with a quick bucket. Chandler tried to take it to the rim himself on the Vols’ next possession, but he lost control of the ball on his way.
Good for him, Fulkerson was right there to retrieve the ball and he even made a layup while fighting through contact to not just give the Vols a 73-69 lead with :56 left, but a chance to go up five points, as well.
He couldn’t get it done. It didn’t matter, however, as an incredible Jordan-James block in the corner led to a last and final turnover for Arizona. Mathurin had to commit his fifth foul because there was just a two second difference between the game clock and the play clock. All Tennessee had to do now was hit its free throws and the game was a wrap at 73-69 with :21 left.
Things got off to a bad start as Chandler missed his first attempt. He did make the second one, though, which made it a 74-69 game. Arizona’s Azoulas Tubelis made the following layup for the Cats to make it a 74-71 game with 13:6 to go.
The game marks the final matchup before Tennessee starts its SEC schedule. The Vols are now set to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide (9-3, 0-0) on Wednesday, January 29. Tip-off is currently set for 8:00p.m. ET.