Rick Barnes pulled John Fulkerson early Saturday against Cincinnati.
The Tennessee coach didn’t like the way the senior forward was defending in the initial minutes, but not boxing out got Fulkerson benched. Fulkerson responded.
Fulkerson finished with a double-double as the Vols pulled away in the final minutes to beat Cincinnati, 65-56.
“Two games in a row, coming down the stretch we have defended very well, and on the other end, we’ve executed and played through the person we need to play through,” Barnes said.
Fulkerson had 15 points and 12 rebounds — both team-leading figures. He scored six points in the final 5:52, including a game-clinching jumper with 23 seconds to play.
Jaden Springer had 11 points for the No. 16 Vols (2-0), while his fellow freshman Keon Johnson had seven points and six rebounds against Cincinnati (2-2). Tennessee had 45 rebounds, including 14 offensive rebounds.
Cincinnati took a 53-51 lead with 6:14 to play. The Bearcats only scored once the rest of the game.
The Vols stifled the Bearcats for the game’s final minutes, forcing four turnovers and allowing three points after David DeJulius put UC ahead for the final time. Cincinnati’s Mika Adams-Woods’ three-point play with 1:36 to play was the lone scoring possession for the Bearcats for the remainder of the game.
“I think two games in a row our defense has been stellar in terms of getting the stops we need,” Barnes said.
Tennessee has relied heavily on its defense in the first two games as the offense settles in during the delayed start to the season. The Vols held Colorado scoreless for the final 2:04 in UT’s 56-47 win on Tuesday.
The Vols, who forced 23 Colorado turnovers, forced 11 in the first half and 17 in the game.
“If shots aren’t falling, that’s even more energy we need to put on the defensive end, especially at the end of games,” Fulkerson said. “Getting stops and executing our defensive plan is just as and if not more important than the offensive end.”
Tennessee’s offense was not pretty against Cincinnati. The Vols were 2-for-12 on layup attempts in the first half and finished 7-for-20 on layups and dunks.
“You definitely think that us playing at the SEC level, we should be able to make a layup,” Fulkerson said. “Like I said before, we just need to get our rhythm under us.”
Barnes believes Tennessee is a better shooting team than it was Saturday. The Vols shot 32.2% from the field and 16.7% from 3-point range.
“I told them tonight proves that on nights when we don’t shoot it (well), we still have a chance to win if we play that kind of defense without fouling, are aggressive getting to the free-throw line and those type of things,” Barnes said.
The Vols made up for the offensive woes by getting to the free-throw line at a great clip — aided by reaching the bonus early in the first half.
Tennessee shot 25-for-30 at the free-throw line, holding a 21-point advantage over Cincinnati. The Bearcats were 4-for-7.
“We always say we want to make more free throws than the other team attempts,” Fulkerson said. “I think getting fouled and being aggressive and attacking the basket is something that we want to do. When you get to the free-throw line, they are called free for a reason. You want to be able to knock them down.”
Cincinnati went on a 10-1 run to take a 40-37 lead early in the second half before Josiah-Jordan James keyed an 8-0 run.
But it was the non-scoring plays the sophomore made that affected Tennessee. James grabbed a rebound off a Cincinnati miss, passed ahead to Springer, who tossed an alley-oop to Fulkerson.
James then got back-to-back steals. He batted a ball free helping Fulkerson. Then he swiped the ball from Cincinnati’s Keith Williams after forcing the UC guard to pick up his dribble.
“It’s just playing with more energy,” James said. “We knew today would be a dog fight. We remembered the game from last year was just a pound-for-pound dog fight type of game. We knew that our strength in numbers would break them at some point and that’s when it happened.”