Tennessee entered Wednesday night's game against Arkansas inside Thompson-Boling Arena shooting just 62% from the free-throw line in Southeastern Conference games.
The No. 9 Volunteers remedied that when it mattered most, going 8-of-8 from the line in the final 45 seconds to hold off Arkansas 79-74. Freshman guard Keon Johnson, just a 58.3% free-throw shooter this season, made four late attempts, while a pair from Santiago Vescovi with 14.1 seconds remaining put Tennessee up 77-74.
Following a missed 3-pointer by Jalen Tate, Josiah-Jordan James scored the game's final two points from the line as Tennessee bounced back from Saturday night's 71-63 home loss to Alabama to improve to 8-1 overall and 2-1 in SEC games.
"We've told Keon that if he's going to play in the end, he better be able to make free throws if he wants to be out there," Vols coach Rick Barnes said. "To his credit, he has spent a lot of time this last week shooting free throws."
The Vols wound up making 20 of 26 free throws overall for a 76.9% clip.
Arkansas entered Wednesday's showdown averaging nearly 90 points a game and shot 57.1% in the first half in building a 40-33 lead. Vols senior forward John Fulkerson, who was criticized by Barnes following his performance against the Crimson Tide, scored seven of Tennessee's first nine second half points to pull the hosts into a 42-42 deadlock.
"We've had some really good practices since we played Alabama," Fulkerson said, "and we've just got to come out and play like we practice. We just need to relax and stay together."
Said Barnes: "John answered the bell at the start of the second half. He was able to get the ball not necessarily to score it but to play inside out."
A Jaden Springer 3-pointer at the 12:48 mark put the Vols up for just the second time in the game at 47-46, and consecutive layups by Johnson and James extended Tennessee's advantage to 67-61 with 4:49 to play. The Razorbacks battled back to within 71-69 with 1:34 left on a JD Notae layup, but a missed 3-pointer by Vance Jackson on their next possession prevented them from taking the lead.
From there, it was a welcome parade of free throws for the Vols.
Johnson earned his first start of the season, bumping Victor Bailey Jr. to the bench, but Bailey shared team-high honors with James at 17 points. Fulkerson scored 16 points and Johnson 14.
"Most of these lineups will be changed for defensive purposes," Barnes said. "When we're not playing to our scouting report — I don't care how many points they're scoring if they're giving up more. If they're scoring 10 and giving up 12 or 14, it can't happen.
"We don't expect VJ to be making the defensive mistakes he's been making."
Notae led Arkansas (9-2) with a game-high 19 points, while Tate chipped in 15 and Jackson 14.
Barnes described James as "terrific from start to finish" and said that the sophomore guard recently lost a lot of basketball memorabilia due to a fire at his Charleston, South Carolina residence.
"Josiah is an incredible human being," Barnes said. "His mom waited until after the game Saturday to tell him what had happened. He's a kind of guy who keeps a lot within himself. He lost everything in his room."
Odds and ends
Tennessee now holds a 23-21 series lead over Arkansas. ... The Vols have yet to allow an opposing player to score 20 points this season. ... Yves Pons became the first Tennessee player to collect at least four blocks in three straight games since former Brainerd High standout C.J. Black in 1999.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.