Tennessee tops Florida to earn double bye into SEC tourney quarterfinals

Knoxville News Sentinel photo by Saul Young via AP / A tearful John Fulkerson waves to fans as he leaves the court near the end of Tennessee's win over Florida on Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena, the regular-season finale for both teams. Fulkerson is a fifth-year senior, and while the NCAA is allowing an extra year of eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic, he doesn't know if he will return.

Tennessee senior forward John Fulkerson said after Sunday afternoon's 65-54 dumping of Florida inside Thompson-Boling Arena that he still isn't sure whether he will use the extra year of eligibility allowed by the NCAA due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

It certainly looked like his Knoxville finale.

With 32.7 seconds remaining, a sobbing Fulkerson was taken out of the game by coach Rick Barnes. Fulkerson received hugs from teammates as he made his way to the bench, and the ovation came from not only socially distanced Volunteers fans but Florida coach Mike White and Gators junior forward Keyontae Johnson, who had the scary incident in December when he collapsed during a game at Florida State and hasn't played since.

"I did not notice that, and it was probably because my eyes were filled with tears," Fulkerson said. "That really means a lot to me, because that shows their respect for me, and that respect goes both ways. Those were tears of joy because of all the memories and all the people, and I just thought of all the success we've had and how much I've grown as a person on the court and off.

"Those are memories and relationships that I'm going to have for the rest of my life. I've had the best time of my life here, and I wouldn't trade it for anything else, but we've still got a lot of work to do."

In avenging a 75-49 loss in Gainesville on Jan. 19, the Vols completed a 17-7 regular season that included a 10-7 mark in Southeastern Conference play. They also clinched a double bye into this week's SEC tournament quarterfinals in Nashville, where a third matchup against Florida could be possible Friday afternoon provided the fifth-seeded Gators (13-8, 9-7) prevail Thursday afternoon against the winner of Wednesday night's tournament opener between 12th-seeded Vanderbilt and 13th-seeded Texas A&M.

The Gators competed Sunday without the services of sophomore guard Tre Mann due to a migraine. Mann is averaging 15.0 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.

Sunday was the final Thompson-Boling performance for Tennessee forward Yves Pons, the 6-foot-6, 215-pound senior from Fuveau, France. Pons tallied just five points on 2-of-8 shooting but racked up eight rebounds, two steals and a block before coming out with 26.9 seconds left.

"I'm glad for the team and glad for myself," Pons said. "I was just doing my job of getting rebounds, playing defense and protecting the rim. Everybody did their job, and it feels great to finish my last home game like that."

Fulkerson, a 6-9, 215-pounder from Kingsport who grew up dreaming of playing for the Vols, led the program last season with 13.7 points per game but entered Sunday having averaged just 5.6 points in his previous seven contests. He tallied 14 against Florida, sharing team-high honors with freshman guard Keon Johnson and redshirt junior guard Victor Bailey Jr.

"Nobody loves this university more than he does," Barnes said. "It was as an emotional day for him as it has been for any player since we've been here because of his ties to the state. For him to come out aggressive and play with the force that he did at times is what we need."

A reverse layup by Scottie Lewis at the 8:13 mark of the first half gave Florida a double-digit advantage at 25-15, and the Gators snagged their largest lead at 31-17 on a Tyree Appleby jumper with 5:24 before halftime. Appleby wound up leading the Gators with 18 points, while Colin Castleton chipped in 11.

The Vols closed the half on an 11-2 run to pull within 33-28 and grabbed the lead for good at 42-41 on a Santiago Vescovi jumper with 12:16 to play. A three-point play by Bailey followed by a steal and layup by Jaden Springer extended Tennessee's lead to 47-41 and forced a Florida timeout at the 10:39 mark.

Johnson's putback with 7:33 remaining gave Tennessee its first double-digit lead at 53-43, and it capped a 36-12 surge by the Vols.

Fulkerson's afternoon also included seven rebounds and a backcourt screen of Ques Glover early in the game that quickly dropped the 5-11, 182-pounder to the floor.

"I like to think that if they want to attack us with pressure, let's attack them with pressure," Barnes said. "He did his job, and Fulky told him that it was nothing intentional. We need to play with force, whether it's setting screens, blocking out or whatever it may be."

Said Fulkerson: "I love to screen, because it gets my teammates open. I think it's something I can do better and more of."

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