KNOXVILLE — With John Fulkerson battling some sickness, Tennessee needed other players to step up and potentially make up for some of his production Tuesday night against Arkansas.
And every player called upon did just that.
Davonte Gaines. Jalen Johnson. Olivier Nkamhoua. Those were just three of the names of players who made contributions for the Volunteers in their 82-61 win in front of 17,222 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Improving to 14-10 overall and 6-5 in the Southeastern Conference, the Vols travel to face South Carolina on Saturday in Columbia.
Fulkerson still played Tuesday, and he provided 14 points and eight rebounds in 27 minutes and 43 seconds of action. Santiago Vescovi led the way with 20 points and eight assists — both career highs. Jordan Bowden had 16 points and six rebounds, while Yves Pons (12 points) and Nkamhoua (10 points, six rebounds) also scored in double figures.
Gaines had six points, grabbed seven rebounds and was credited with three steals. Johnson made his first start as a Vol and had four points, three rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
"I think one, we weren't sure (Fulkerson) was going to play," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "He hadn't done anything with us on the court since the last game. He wasn't even over here for walk-through today. I don't think he warmed up with the guys. But he said he would give us what he could. You look at what he did tonight, it was really pretty remarkable.
"Yves, too, wasn't feeling the best he could feel. But I thought Ticket (Gaines), Olivier, Santi (Vescovi), Jalen — all those guys gave us more. They did. There's no doubt once we settled in — we had a couple silly turnovers to start the game — from start to finish we were pretty good on both ends. Again, we knew they were going to continue to drive the ball at us hard, but we rebounded, and when we needed a basket we had pretty good execution."
The Vols dominated in the paint, where they outscored the Razorbacks 40-16.
Everything Vescovi did Tuesday night worked. It was the perfect sort of game for the Vols' 6-foot-3 freshman guard, considering Arkansas is really good at forcing turnovers in the full court but not so good in a half-court game. The Vols got the game at a pace where they wanted it, and Vescovi was under control as the primary decision-maker. He didn't make any mistakes late in the shot clock, made six of his 10 shots and turned the ball over only three times.
It wasn't solely Gaines, but the 6-7 guard seemed to be the primary defender on Arkansas guard Mason Jones, who entered Tuesday as the leading scorer in the SEC at 20.5 points per game. Against the Vols, Jones was 1-for-10 from the field and scored nine points, his fewest since a one-point game against Vanderbilt on Jan. 15. Without Arkansas sophomore guard Isaiah Joe, who has missed the past three games after having knee surgery, the Razorbacks needed a solid performance from Jones.
It wasn't any one particular point, but the Vols' defense was overwhelming in the first half. Arkansas never got comfortable on that end of the court, with Tennessee and Vescovi dictating the pace and scoring, which in turn prevented the Razorbacks from getting out and using their #PaceandSpace style attack, which leans on a lot of isolation and transition points. The Vols' scoring led to a slower style for Arkansas, which shot less than 25% from the floor after a 2-for-4 start to the game. That, coupled with 10 first-half turnovers, led to a 17-point halftime lead for the Vols.
WHAT IT MEANS
Tennessee needed a win over a quality team, and for the second straight Tuesday, they got one. Last week's win over Alabama was over a Quadrant 1 opponent, and while Arkansas may be flawed without Joe, the win still currently qualifies as a Quadrant 2 win, keeping the Vols' NCAA tournament hopes alive. Those hopes may be on life support, but if they can keep finding ways to pull out wins down the stretch, sneaking into the tournament isn't completely out of the realm of possibility.
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.