On paper, this was a spot where it appeared like Tennessee would have to make some outside jumpers to beat No. 6 Arizona. In reality, the Volunteers went right at Arizona’s elite frontcourt size with a kid from Kingsport.
For the first time in a long time, Tennessee played through John Fulkerson, and the hometown hero delivered one of the best games of his career. Fulky poured in 24 points and added ten rebounds, while drawing a staggering 13 fouls. Those fouls took Arizona big men Azuolas Tubelis and Christian Koloko off of the floor, opening things up for the Volunteers to attack the rim.
Wednesday night was a huge spot for Tennessee, and Fulkerson clearly understood the weight of the moment. His big night started with his preparation.
“John Fulkerson came out 30 minutes before everybody today in shootaround and he was out when I left last night,” Rick Barnes said after the win. “After our meeting, he was on the floor shooting. He knows that this is his last year and there’s no doubt he wants to give it to them.”
Fulkerson shot 8-13 from the floor, finding big buckets down the stretch for Tennessee. The Vols let Arizona back in the game late in the second half, and on a night where Kennedy Chandler didn’t have it, they played through their sixth-year big man.
Maybe even more important that his field goal percentage was his work at the free throw stripe, where he went 8-12 and helped Tennessee hang on for the win.
“We need him to do what he does,” Barnes said. “That may mean scoring it, but drawing fouls was a big part of it. If you take the fact that put 13 fouls on them, he had a triple-double in a way that not many people call triple-doubles. He felt good.
“He was terrific. He really was. A lot of guys were. It was a great team effort.”
We really haven’t seen that Fulky since the 2020 Kentucky win at Rupp Arena. Fulkerson really struggled through his first senior season last year, something Barnes attributes to a tough bout with COVID early in the year. That poor season likely played into his decision to return for one more season, which paid off in a big way on Wednesday night.
Fulkerson now averages 9.9 points per game, which ranks third on the team. Early in the season, Tennessee made its living at the three-point line. After a strong showing here from Fulkerson, it will be interesting to see if that changes.
That hinges on Fulky bringing this kind of effort nightly, though.
“I mean, I would love to see that Fulky every day, that’s just how the game goes, and you try to bring it every day, every practice, every game and I think that’s the standard my coaches and my teammates have for me,” Fulkerson said after the game.
“I think I was just knowing that, at that moment, that I thought I couldn’t be stopped, and that if my teammates gave me the ball then I would make the right plays.
Tennessee will break for Christmas now before opening SEC play next Wednesday night at Alabama.