Tennessee basketball: Three takeaways from Vols’ 77-73 win vs. No. 6/5 Arizona

In what was by far their best win of the year so far, Tennessee basketball held off the Arizona Wildcats Wednesday evening 77-73 to hand them their first loss of the year. UT was not hurt at all by the eight-day layoff, caused in large part by the Memphis Tigers having to cancel last Saturday’s game in Nashville due to a COVID outbreak.

Rick Barnes’ team, ranked No. 19 in both polls, jumped out to a 9-0 lead early and eventually pushed it to 16-2, leading by as many as 15 in the first half and heading into halftime up 34-21. Arizona, ranked No. 6 in the AP Poll and No. 5 in the Coaches Poll, made a comeback and tied it up within three minutes, but defense and efficient offense helped them pull away.

With the win, Rocky Top improves to 9-2, and they next begin SEC play in a week at the Alabama Crimson Tide. Arizona falls to 11-1 and will next return to Pac-12 play, visiting the UCLA Bruins next Thursday. Here are three things we learned from Tennessee basketball’s win.

1. John Fulkerson took over.

Santiago Vescovi did have 15 points, Josiah-Jordan James had 12 while going 2-of-6 from the three-point line, and Justin Powell had 11 points off the bench while going 1-of-2 from three. However, Vescovi was 3-of-12 from beyond the arc, and the team was 7-of-24. The difference for the Vols was John Fulkerson in the paint.

Fulkerson finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds. When Arizona tied it up, he hit a jumper, a free throw and then rebounded from a near-Kennedy Chandler turnover to put the ball back with less than a minute left, giving UT a 73-69 win. He was a star for Rocky Top and deserves the credit for this one, going 8-of-13 from the field and 8-of-12 from the free throw line.

2. Defense made plays in multiple ways.

Late in the game, Tennessee basketball showed a ton of mental toughness rebounding from blowing such a huge lead. Fulkerson’s offense was a huge part of that. The other part was defense. James, in addition to 12 points, had two steals and two blocks, including one of each after Arizona tied it up.

Beyond James, though, Chandler made up for an awful shooting night with three steals. Then there was Olivier Nkamhoua in the paint, who had three blocks. Nkamhoua’s defense and Fulkerson’s offense allowed UT to dominate the paint despite Arizona having a 6’11” and a 7’1″ starter who each average double figures.

3. Foul trouble favored the Vols.

If there’s one break UT got in this game, it was that Arizona’s key players got into foul trouble. All five starters finished with at least four fouls. Leading scorer Bennedict Mathurin fouled out, as did point guard Kerr Kriisa and center Christian Koloko, both of whom average double figures.

Power forward Azuolas Tubelis, who also averages double figures, had four fouls. Kriisa had a bad technical late that gave Tennessee basketball two points. On the other side, Vescovi had four fouls, Nkamhoua and Powell each had three, and nobody else had more than two. That made a big difference in this game.