With star freshmen rolling, Vols could be quicker from here on out

Southeastern Conference photo / Tennessee freshman guard Keon Johnson dunks for two of his 27 points during Saturday night's 82-71 victory at Kentucky, which marked the third win for the Volunteers inside Rupp Arena in the last four seasons.

If Saturday night turns out to be the only occasion when Tennessee five-star talents Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer play inside Rupp Arena, they certainly made the most of it.

The freshman guards for the No. 11 Volunteers combined for a whopping 50 points in an 82-71 triumph over Kentucky that marked the program's third win in Lexington in the past four seasons. Johnson and Springer entered one of college basketball's cathedrals and shot a combined 18-of-33 from the floor and 13-of-15 on free throws.

"Coming into the game, we just wanted to win," Johnson said afterward on a Zoom call. "We had to get back to the way that we play, which is playing as hard as we can and playing to the last minute. We knew the type of team that Kentucky was and that we just had to come out and execute. I feel like we did the job."

Tennessee's play down the stretch was in sharp contrast to Tuesday's 52-20 loss at Ole Miss, when the Vols went 12 minutes and 23 seconds without a made basket. After Tennessee tied it at 58 with 10 straight points Saturday, its freshman tandem took over as Johnson and Springer scored 18 straight points in a continued surge that provided the Vols a 76-66 lead that iced the game.

Johnson's 27 points and Springer's 23 were career highs.

"We've been trying to start playing faster but under control," Johnson said of the deciding run. "I feel like we were converting on their turnovers, and whenever we got the ball off rebounds, we tried to push the ball up the court as fast as possible. We were converting there as well."

Said Springer: "I was definitely feeding off Keon's energy, because he set the tone from the jump. He was being aggressive, making plays and making things happen. I was just kind of following his lead out there."

The performances of Johnson and Springer timed out well because of the way the first four minutes transpired, with sophomore guard Santiago Vescovi and senior forward John Fulkerson drawing two quick fouls and combining for just 10 first-half minutes. That led to Johnson and Springer combining for 34 first-half minutes, including 19 from Springer.

"Keon and Jaden played longer and harder tonight since they've been at Tennessee," Vols coach Rick Barnes said. "Those guys did play through fatigue tonight, which they haven't done this year. I asked them two or three times along with Yves (Pons) if they were good since they were out there so much, and they said, 'Coach, I'm good.'

"That was a big step, but the real big step will be if we can count on them to bring that energy to the floor every night from here on out."

Tennessee (13-4, 6-4 Southeastern Conference), which jumped Sunday from No. 13 to No. 10 in the NET rankings, is back in action at 8 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN2, hosting an improved Georgia (12-6, 5-6). The Vols were originally scheduled to host Florida on Wednesday, but the SEC adjusted its schedule Sunday because the Gators and Texas A&M are dealing with COVID-19 issues.

Vols coaches placed an emphasis in recent days on running and attacking more, and the fact the 6-foot-9 Fulkerson was on the bench for 30 of 40 minutes Saturday lent a quicker five on the floor.

"I feel like we had become caught up too much in just running the plays," Springer said. "We forgot to just run out and get easy buckets first. We stuck to that game plan tonight, and it really worked out for us."

Combining for 50 points overshadowed the fact the freshmen did the little things, too, with Johnson playing all game without a turnover and Springer collecting three blocks. Their efforts could enhance their standings on NBA draft boards after a week in which Springer was projected to go 10th overall by NBA Draft Room and Johnson seventh in an ESPN mock draft.

Barnes is now 8-5 in head-to-head meetings against John Calipari, and Barnes is the only active coach other than Calipari with three wins at Rupp Arena.

"That just means we've come up here with some good basketball teams and good players," Barnes said. "A year ago, we were down 16 with 11 minutes to go and won, and that's been one of the greatest comebacks I've been a part of. Tonight we were down 10, but the credit goes to the players. It's fun watching them play like that. I just love the way they got locked into the game.

"They were oblivious to everything else going on other than on the court, and I'm excited for our guys and excited for our fan base."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.