Tennessee scored 37 second-half points and overcame a five-point halftime deficit to beat Florida 65-54 on Sunday. Here are three things.
A Tale of Two Halves
Florida shot nearly 50 percent from the field and led by as many as 14 points in the first half — it was 15 minutes of basketball that looked familiar to Vol fans who’ve watched the same team that started the season 10-1 limp into March with a ho-hum 8-6 record over its last 14 games.
Part of the problem: Tennessee’s guards have been a bit, um, erratic this season. At times, they’re shooting out the lights, finding open teammates for easy buckets, and the Vols are running opponents out of the gym. But at others, they’re getting blown by defensively and struggling to hit easy looks.
Against the Gators, three of the main guys in the back-court rotation, Jaden Springer, Santiago Vescovi and Victor Bailey, were sluggish out of the gate. They combined for just eight points on 3-11 shooting from the field (1-7 from deep) and three turnovers to start the game.
However, the Vols ended the first half on an 11-2 scoring run inside the final five minutes of the period. Eight of those 11 points came via Volunteer guards (Bailey with six, Johnson with two).
“I thought at the end of the first half defensively we started getting a little more locked in,” Tennessee Head Coach Rick Barnes said in the post-game press conference. “I thought we started settling in a little bit.”
The Volunteer defense stayed “locked in,” throughout the second half, holding the Gators to just 31-percent shooting, six made field goals and 21 points, which marked the lowest-scoring half of the season for Florida, according to ESPN dot com.
I’m Not Crying — You’re Crying
It was Senior Day for Tennessee as Yves Pons and John Fulkerson played their final home games for the Volunteers.
In a vacuum, the seniors haven’t had poor seasons, but neither player has built on the break-out 2019 seasons like most of us had hoped.
Big picture — part of what’s made this season a bit disappointing are the expectations that were levied when Barnes added the country’s fifth-best recruiting class to a roster with Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James going into their second years and Pons and Fulkerson coming off All-SEC individual seasons.
Pons tested the NBA waters after last year — a season in which he recorded a block in all 31 contests, averaged 2.4 swats per game, shot 35 percent from 3-point range and won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Ultimately, he received a second-round grade and decided to come back for his senior season.
(Just for fun, here’s Pons’ most recent edition to his highlight reel. It looks like he ducks mid-air to avoid hitting his head on the rim. Lol wut.)
Yves Pons secret identity is Superman pic.twitter.com/at63g6KCsl— // nichabod crane // (@_NicoSuave_) March 7, 2021
Fulkerson established himself as a go-to scorer for Tennessee last year: he led the Vols in scoring with nearly 14 points per game and hit the double-figure scoring mark in 23 of 31 games.
But both guys have struggled with consistency this season. Pons hasn’t hit the outside shot at nearly the clip he did last season, and Fulkerson hasn’t been the offensive bucket-getter he was last year. Figuring out the reason for these troubles is one of the more perplexing storylines for the basketball team this year. And thusly, as a collective, the team hasn’t been what fans expected before the season started.
Regardless, both players have endeared themselves to Vols fans for various reasons, so naturally it was an emotional sendoff Sunday.
“First of all, I’m sorry for being so emotional, but it’s just all the memories I’ve had while here at Tennessee, with my coaches and my teammates, it’s just been the ride of a life time,” a teary-eyed Fulkerson said after the game. “It’s something that I’m really going to miss leaving. I’m just so thankful and so blessed to be at the University of Tennessee, and I’ve loved every second of it.”
Here’s the link to the entire post-game interview with Fulkerson. If you haven’t watched it yet, go do that.
Keon Johnson, NBA Lottery Pick
Johnson was fantastic during Tennessee’s comeback win against Florida. He went 7-11 from the field and tied Fulkerson and Victor Bailey for the team lead in scoring with 14 points.
There’s been plenty of chatter about the Vols’ offense this season, particularly about shot selection and the team’s propensity to take looks from mid-range. That specific shot is widely considered the worst shot (or the least efficient shot) in basketball, especially when it’s contested, given the distance from the rim and two-point valuation.
Against Florida, particularly in the second half, it looked like, maybe, Tennessee figured something out. According to Will Warren, @StatsByWill on Twitter, the Vols took 14 two-point shots that weren’t at the rim. That made for one of the year’s best games in terms of shot selection and played a pretty major role in the 37-point, second-half offensive outburst.
Per https://t.co/fuIIToj01l, Tennessee took 14 non-rim two-pointers out of 62 field goal attempts. That's 22.6% of all shots - the lowest rate since Texas A&M on January 9 & the third-lowest rate of the season. 26 of Tennessee's final 32 shots were layups, dunks, tips, or threes. https://t.co/sLhGtTzYc9— Will Warren (@statsbywill) March 8, 2021
Johnson was distinctly good in this regard. He scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half, and all of his eight attempts came in the paint with each of his five makes coming on layups or dunks.
His start to the season was a bit rocky: over the season’s first 15 games, he scored 8.9 points per game on 45-percent shooting (23 percent from 3-point range), 65-percent shooting from the free-throw line with a two-plus turnover per-game average.
But Johnson exploded in the first matchup against Kentucky with a 27-point game in which he shot 56 percent from the field and went 9-11 from the free-throw line (he had four rebounds, three assists, one block, one steal and zero turnovers, too). Keon’s not been a great outside shooter during his time here at Tennessee — he’s shooting just 26 percent from deep for the year — but he attempted just one three in that Kentucky game, and we can see how effective he was as he limited his shot attempts to looks, mostly, relatively close to the hoop. All but five of his shots came at or inside the free-throw line.
This Keon Johnson, the one attacking the basket and getting high-percentage looks, would be a dangerous asset for a Tennessee offense that finds itself struggling to generate baskets for several minutes at a time during game. Since that Kentucky game, Johnson’s scoring average has ticked up to nearly 14.5 points with a 49-percent field-goal percentage and an 80-percent free-throw shooting mark. Let’s hope he continues this play in the near future. It’s likely going to result in him being a top-15-ish pick come NBA Draft time, but hopefully it helps propel Tennessee to a run in the NCAA Tournament.