Tennessee kicked off its 2021 SEC Tournament run by beating Florida 78-66 on Friday, marking the second victory for the Vols over the Gators in less than a week. Here are three things.
Omar Brings the Payne with Cheap Shot Elbow on Fulkerson
With about 17 minutes left in the second half and Florida down by nine, Omar Payne hit John Fulkerson with one of the dirtiest plays I’ve seen on a basketball court.
Keon Johnson drove to the hoop and put up a tear-drop floater from about five feet out, and while Payne and Fulkerson were jockeying for position, they got tangled up and Payne hit Fulkerson with a Dollar-Tree combination forearm to the face/ vicious back-elbow to the temple.
Woah. Omar Payne with quite the elbow. pic.twitter.com/a6038iJn9h— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) March 12, 2021
The forearm was unnecessary, but that kind of contact happens when two big guys are jostling to occupy the same space. I’m not going to throw a fit over that. But the elbow shot was indefensible. It’s one of the most egregious plays I’ve seen in a hoops game, and the ejection that comes with flagrant-2 fouls isn’t a harsh enough punishment on its own. I didn’t do any digging for precedence, and maybe I’m biased, but Payne’s season ought to be over. There’s no place for that on the court. Not cool, man. Way not cool.
Yves Pons is Ridiculous
Sometimes when you’re watching greatness, the full gravity of it gets lost in the moment. It can be hard to appreciate in real time as it can take time to gain perspective. Well, we saw greatness Friday.
Yves Pons blocked nine (9!!!) shots against the Gators, which set a new Tennessee single-game record for most blocks in a game and tied the all-time mark for SEC Tournament contests. Six of those swats came in the game’s first 15 minutes.
Incredibly dominant performance today by Yves Pons (@airpons), setting the @Vol_Hoops record w/ 9 BLOCKS in a win over UF. The 6'6 215lb Senior may be the most versatile defender in CBB. A strong, explosive leaper who covers a lot of ground, and has elite timing + body control. pic.twitter.com/curYBKDqD4— LeagueHim (@League_Him) March 12, 2021
Pons also scored 10 points, had eight rebounds and hit two of his three attempts from 3-point range. For some context on just how silly that line is: Since 2010-11, which is as far back as the query tool on Sports-Reference dot com goes, only seven players in college basketball have tallied a stat line that’s comparable (using Pons’ numbers as the minimum baseline).
Tennessee’s defense looked as good against Florida on Friday as it has in several weeks, and Pons protecting the rim was obviously a huge factor. The Vols were good on the perimeter and tight against the pick and roll, but Pons as an insurance policy makes all of that easier.
Yves Pons switching onto Tre Mann and blocking him at the rim.— Aram Cannuscio (@AC__Hoops) March 12, 2021
Crazy amount of ground he covered after Mann hit him with the hesi. pic.twitter.com/tWTC1p5Mco
This play sort of sums up Pons’ impact (as much as one play can). Sure, he gets beat off the dribble, but he still gets the block even though Mann has a couple steps on him. This is true for any Vol defender — the guys can feel okay pressuring the ball because they know even if they get beat, there’s an even-money shot Pons still affects the shot.
Vol Guards Show Up, Show Out
In my last “Three Things,” article, I mentioned that Tennessee’s guards played well in the second half of the Florida game from last week, and I said they’d been “erratic,” as a group at times this season.
Well, whatever they’re doing is working, because they had another strong showing against the Gators Friday.
Josiah-Jordan James filled the stat sheet and had perhaps his best game of the season. He dropped in 12 points on 4-5 shooting (2-3 from deep), tied for the team lead with nine boards, added five assists and zero turnovers. He also had one tremendous block that counted and another tremendous block that didn’t count. Santiago Vescovi broke out of his slump with 14 points, four made 3s and five assists to just two turnovers — it was the first time since February 13th that Santi hit the double-digit scoring mark. Keon and Jaden Springer combined for 24 points, and Johnson led the team in both rebounds (nine) and assists (six).
All that stuff is wonderful, but my favorite aspects of Tennessee’s guard play against Florida won’t show up in traditional box scores: they were really good defensively (for the most part) and handled Florida’s full-court defensive press better than they’ve handled any press all season. The perimeter defense has struggled pretty considerably against the pick and roll at times this year, but Friday there weren’t many miscommunications while the switches and help rotations looked pretty tight. Overall, the Vols held the Gators to 85.2 points per possession, which is the lowest figure they’ve given up since they posted an 81.1 figure against Ole Miss on February 2nd. Oh, and Tennessee notched 16 fast-break points — an encouraging number considering its transition points per possession figure is just 84.1 and notably worse than offense’s overall figure of 92.4 (via Synergy Sports).
The Vols absolutely have to have production similar to this if they hope to make any noise in the NCAA Tournament. Fulkerson is a no-go for Saturday’s game against Bama, which is obviously bad, but hopefully that reinforces whatever’s going on that has Tennessee’s guards playing well.