Updated with more information at 9:20 p.m. on March 12, 2021.
Tennessee has earned a chance at sixth-ranked Alabama in Saturday afternoon's Southeastern Conference basketball tournament semifinals inside Nashville's Bridgestone Arena, but the resilient Volunteers will likely be shorthanded against the top-seeded Crimson Tide.
A 78-66 victory by the fourth-seeded Vols over fifth-seeded Florida in Friday's quarterfinal matchup was overshadowed by Gators sophomore forward Omar Payne delivering an elbow to the head of Tennessee senior forward John Fulkerson. The incident occurred less than three minutes into the second half and left Fulkerson on the floor for several minutes before he was helped to the locker room.
Payne was ejected from the game with Tennessee leading 35-26.
"It kind of pissed us off, and that really motivated us to keep going and not relax," Vols senior forward Yves Pons said. "We had his back. That was a dirty play, and it has nothing to do with basketball."
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said afterward that Fulkerson was taken to the hospital "more for his eye than anything else." The 6-foot-9, 215-pounder from Kingsport helped the Vols build a 31-22 halftime lead on 3-for-4 shooting, and he was coming off a 14-point, seven-rebound performance in last Sunday's 65-54 win over the Gators in Knoxville that closed the regular season for both teams.
When asked about Fulkerson's prospects of playing against Alabama, Barnes said: "I don't know right now if we could say we can count on him. My gut feeling — he actually took two pretty good licks right there — is that I would be surprised if he is available."
Santiago Vescovi led the Vols (18-7) with 14 points, while Keon Johnson tallied 13 and Josiah-Jordan James 12. Jaden Springer and Pons added 11 apiece for the winners, but the stat of the afternoon was Pons setting a school record with nine blocked shots. Pons tied the Tennessee standard with six in the first half alone.
"He was locked in," Barnes said. "I kept looking at him, asking if he needed a blow. He said, 'I'm good. I'm good.' I'm just happy for him, because he was outstanding."
Tre Mann erupted for 30 points to lead the Gators (14-9), shooting 5-of-10 from 3-point range.
Alabama (22-6) advanced into the semifinal showdown against the Vols with an 85-48 thrashing of Mississippi State, a game the Crimson Tide led 43-13. Saturday afternoon's contest has a 1 Eastern tip on ESPN.
The Vols were undefeated when Alabama ventured into Thompson-Boling Arena on Jan. 2 and pulled off a 71-63 surprise. The Tide led 31-29 at the break that day but connected on their first five 3-point attempts of the second half to grab a 48-36 advantage.
"Yves Pons picked up two quick fouls early in that game, and Jaden drove it, if I can remember right, and turned his ankle," Barnes said. "It got away from us. That was really one of the first games I thought where we were down and didn't know quite how to respond. I think they've gotten better, and I would like to think that we've gotten better."
Said Vescovi: "We all remember the first game. It was not good for us."
Tennessee has now defeated Florida six times in their past seven encounters, and an upset of Alabama would result in three consecutive trips to the SEC title game for the Vols, which would mark a program first.
Pons a finalist
Pons was named Friday morning as a finalist for the Lefty Driesell Defensive Player of the Year Award.
The 6-foot-6, 215-pounder from Fuveau, France, has racked up 36 blocks, 16 steals and nine drawn charges this season and is also a finalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. Both awards will be presented in April.