Tennessee basketball downs Florida to advance in SEC Tournament; John Fulkerson leaves injured
NASHVILLE — Florida’s Anthony Duruji ducked under John Fulkerson and flew toward the rim Friday at Bridgestone Arena.
Yves Pons was waiting. The Tennessee basketball forward smacked Duruji’s attempt off the backboard for his sixth block in the less than 16 minutes to tie his career record and the UT single-game record. He added three more blocks in the second half, including two in the final 40 seconds to tie the SEC Tournament record with nine blocks.
Fourth-seeded Tennessee was stout defensively to top third-seeded Florida 78-64 and advance in the SEC Tournament after Fulkerson left when Florida’s Omar Payne hit him with a pair of elbows in the second half.
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"It kind of pissed us off, motivated us to keep going, don't relax," Pons said. "We have Johnny's back."
The Vols (18-7) will face top-seeded Alabama (22-6) on Saturday in the SEC Tournament semifinals. Alabama beat Mississippi State 85-48 earlier Friday.
Pons had 11 points and eight rebounds along with his record-setting defensive performance. Santiago Vescovi led Tennessee with 14 points, shooting 4 of 8 on 3-pointers. Keon Johnson had 13 points and nine rebounds. Josiah-Jordan James had 12 points and nine rebounds.
John Fulkerson leaves game after Florida’s Omar Payne throws elbow
Fulkerson and Payne were battling for rebounding position as Johnson made a floater with 17:10 to play in the second half. Payne turned and rocked Fulkerson with a left elbow after the shot went in. Payne started to run down the court, then swung a right elbow into Fulkerson’s head.
The Vols senior was down on the court for an extended period before being helped off the court. He did not return and Rick Barnes said he would be surprised if Fulkerson plays against Alabama. Fulkerson was taken to the hospital for evaluation "more for his eye than anything else," Barnes said.
"I don’t know if I could say we could count on him (Saturday)," Barnes said. "Again, we’ll wait and see. My gut feeling, he took two pretty good licks right there. I would be surprised if he is available.”
Fulkerson had eight points in 19 minutes for Tennessee. Payne was called for a flagrant-2 foul and was ejected.
UT led by nine when Fulkerson left, then opened a 17-point lead. The Vols led by double-digits throughout most of the second half.
Santiago Vescovi gets rolling for Tennessee basketball
Vescovi said he took a little bit of time to adjust to the backdrop behind the rims at Bridgestone Arena. But the sophomore guard settled in quickly and buried four 3-pointers, his most since he made six at Texas A&M on Jan. 9.
"I just feel that we played in a fun way today," Vescovi said. "We all had a lot of smiles. Everybody was smiling. We were having fun while we were playing. We're playing for each other. I think that's one of the best things that we could have done moving forward and thinking about (Saturday)."
Vescovi added five assists.
Uros Plavsic snares backup minutes
Fulkerson waved for a substitution at the 17:16 mark. Barnes hollered for Uros Plavsic, who entered the game as the first reserve for Tennessee.
Plavsic had played only six minutes in three games since the start of February. Barnes indicated Sunday that Tennessee was prepared to play the 7-foot Plavsic against the Gators to match up with Florida’s 6-11 center Colin Castleton.
Plavsic played five minutes, grabbing an offensive rebound and making a second-chance layup.
Tennessee faces Alabama on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN). UT lost 71-63 to the Crimson Tide on Jan. 2, its first loss after a 7-0 start. The Vols and Crimson Tide were scheduled to play in the 2020 SEC Tournament before it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.