Arizona came into the game as the number one overall seed in Bart Torvik’s predictive bracketology. The thought there is they had the best chance to put together the kind of resume that earned the top seed on Selection Sunday. I don’t know if they’re the best team in the land; the defending champs are still undefeated, Purdue and Gonzaga might have a say, etc. But they’ll have every opportunity to be in that conversation. And that’s still the case after tonight; they remain a one seed in the predictive bracketology. It is undoubtedly a team in the top line conversation.
Which, of course, makes it an incredibly impressive and valuable win for Tennessee. One that makes you believe they’ll have a chance to get one against anybody, and play their way towards that top line themselves.
It was a unique kind of win, one where you get the most fun part out of the way early. The Vols led 9-0 after three minutes and 16-2 two minutes after that. It was 22-7 at the under 12. I’m not convinced Tennessee did anything incredibly wrong from there. Arizona stopped being so generous, and started being Arizona.
But when they cut it to five with 1:42 to play in the half, Tennessee went nuclear: an and-one from John Fulkerson, a three from Santiago Vescovi, and a bucket from Kennedy Chandler, all in the final 1:02, pushed Tennessee’s lead back to 13 at the break. The Wildcats turned it over a dozen times in the first 20 minutes.
They only turned it over five times in the second 20 minutes, which is how an offense like theirs scores 21 points in the first half and 52 in the second.
In two minutes, the lead was down to five. Josiah-Jordan James took the lead here, splashing a three and following up with a two. A Vescovi trey pushed Tennessee’s advantage back to 12 a minute later.
A little more than a minute later, it was back down to four. In this stretch, Kerr Kriisa just started stepping into threes, and they loved him back. For an Arizona team that got four points from Christian Koloko and six from Azuolas Tubelis inside, Kriisa and Benedict Mathurin had to carry the load, and they were fully capable.
But again, James was there with a timely three. Vescovi added seven of his 15 points in this stretch.
And John Fulkerson started to heat up.
A Vescovi three made it 60-48 with 8:17 to go. By this point, you had to assume Arizona wasn’t going away. Koloko got his first points with seven minutes to play to cap another 7-0 spurt, cutting it to five. Fulkerson stopped the bleeding with an immediate answer.
The stretch Arizona will wonder about came next. Justin Kier hit a three to make it 62-60 with 6:12 to play. They got a steal, but missed the front end of a one-and-one. They did it again the next time down, but got the offensive rebound and Koloko tied it at 5:08. Kennedy Chandler hit one of two to make it 63-62 Vols. Kriisa missed a three, then Mathurin missed at the rim on their next two trips.
The talking point may become the quick technical foul assessed to Kriisa on the following possession, allowing Justin Powell to hit three of four free throws. But in the stretch preceding it, Arizona’s offense came up empty on three possessions with a chance to take the lead.
They’d never see it not because their offense continued to struggle, but because John Fulkerson took over in crunch time.
Kier hit a three with 3:59 to go to erase the advantage of Powell’s free throws, leaving the Vols again up by one. Fulkerson hit one of two at the line, then Mathurin hit both of his to tie it 67-67 with 2:58 to play. Fulky was there with a high-arcing turnaround to put the Vols back in front 69-67. And at this point, Tennessee was looking for him as their first option.
An Arizona turnover led to two Fulky free throws and a four-point lead with 2:15 to go. Tubelis scored to cut it to two. The Vols survived a missed three from Kriisa the next time down, another chance to take the lead. With a minute to go, Kennedy Chandler cleared it out.
It didn’t work. It didn’t work most of the night for Chandler, who went 2-of-14. But Fulky was there:
And to bring it full circle, the Vols got a spectacular block from Josiah-Jordan James and a steal from Kennedy Chandler on Arizona’s next trip, sealing the deal on the defensive end.
The result: a 77-73 win over #6 Arizona, the sixth Top 10 win for Rick Barnes at Tennessee (four over Kentucky plus #1 Gonzaga). The Vols took away Arizona’s size inside, largely by getting it into foul trouble: six points in 13 minutes for Tubelis, four in 19 for Koloko. The Vols, one of the least active teams in the nation it getting to the free throw line, shot 27 in this one; 12 from Fulkerson. And big John finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds, and only two turnovers.
There are going to be some teams that simply have no answer for Kennedy Chandler. We’re seeing, increasingly, that the very best teams we face will probably not be among them. There are going to be some nights when Tennessee’s shooters are on, and things look very easy. But the Vols hit just 7-of-24 (29.2%) in this one.
But best believe ole #10 can still be the reason we get one like this too. And getting one like this means you can believe the Vols can get one against anybody.