A career-high 27 points from junior John Fulkerson, a massive 29-9 second-half run and a dominant defensive effort in the final 20 minutes propelled Tennessee to an 81-73 comeback victory over sixth-ranked Kentucky on Tuesday at Rupp Arena.
The win was Tennessee’s second in its last three trips to Lexington and made Rick Barnes the first Tennessee coach ever to win multiple games at Rupp Arena.
“Our guys were confident,” Barnes said. “Even when we were down, and I would walk into the timeout, they were talking to each other about ‘Hey we just can’t keep making those turnovers and mistakes that we’re making.’ They were great at driving the ball and we really said, ‘Hey we’re going to get into those gaps and they’re going to have to make some jump shots.’ And we actually made some plays in the gap where we knocked it through, got out in transition and got some baskets like that. We also tried to speed the tempo up some. But, when we got into a dead ball situation, we knew we were going to play through Fulky.”
The Vols (17-13, 9-8 SEC) trailed by as many as 17 points, marking the second time this season UT has come back to win when trailing by 15 or more. Tennessee’s 51 second-half points were the most the Vols have scored in a half this season.
Prior to Tuesday night, the last time Kentucky blew a lead of 17 or more points was when Barnes’ Vols erased a 21-point deficit to post an 84-77 triumph in Knoxville on Feb. 2, 2016.
Fulkerson’s 27 points Tuesday came on a career-high-tying 10 made field goals and a perfect 7-of-7 effort from the foul line. His scoring output marked his fourth 20-point performance in UT’s last nine games and enhanced his standing as an All-SEC candidate.
“I just think what we’ve been talking about is doing whatever it takes to win,” Fulkerson said. “And Jordan Bone once said, ‘We never want to walk off the court and say that the other team wanted it more than us.’ So, every time we leave the court, we want to want it more than them. We never want to have regret or say they wanted it more. That’s something that we pride ourselves on, just playing hard and doing what it takes to win and just wanting it.”
Freshman Josiah-Jordan James also was huge for the Vols, scoring all of his season-high 16 points in the second half. James finished the night 5-of-9 from the field and 2-of-4 from 3-point range while also pulling in seven rebounds and dishing off a game-high-tying five assists.
SEC Defensive Player of the Year candidate Yves Pons delivered a clutch performance on the offensive end, scoring 12 of his 15 points in the second half. Pons concluded the night 6-of-9 from the field and drilled all three of his 3-point attempts.
Junior Jalen Johnson came off the bench to help keep UT within striking distance in the first half, knocking down two 3-pointers to cut UK’s early 13-point lead to seven.
A balanced opening eight minutes had Kentucky holding a slim 14-11 lead at the under-12 media timeout. Fulkerson was on fire for the Vols, knocking down each of his first four field goal attempts and scoring nine points.
Down the stretch of the opening half, the Wildcats (24-6, 14-3 SEC) briefly took control, increasing their lead to 42-31 at the halftime break.
Kentucky continued to pour it on to begin the second half, stretching its advantage to 51-34 just three minutes in.
The Vols then responded with a 9-0 run, spearheaded by five points and an assist from James to cut the Wildcat lead to just eight points with 13:57 remaining.
Over the next seven minutes, the Vols expanded their run to 29-9 during a 10-minute stretch with balanced scoring and a number of defensive stops to take a 63-60 advantage, which was their first lead since the 15:53 mark of the first half.
In the game’s final four minutes, the Wildcats never regained the lead, as multiple late stops and a 7-of-8 mark from the charity stripe sealed the Vols’ impressive road triumph.