By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Josiah-Jordan James nearly pulled it off.
A week after the world watched Duke’s Tre Jones intentionally miss a free throw, grab his own rebound and hit a contested shot that helped the Blue Devils escape Chapel Hill with a win, James perfectly executed a similar play of his own.
With Tennessee down by two against South Carolina and three seconds remaining, James lined his foul shot off the front end of the rim and corralled the rebound off the left side of the paint. He managed to take a dribble and set himself up with a more-than-decent look at a baseline jumper, but left his shot short and South Carolina survived at home 63-61 over the Vols.
Despite the miss, it was an impressive play by Tennessee for James to get the bounce that he did off the rim and anticipate where the rebound was headed. John Fulkerson did a good job of boxing out Maik Kotsar to give James room for the shot. It went about as well as one could’ve hoped for leading up to the shot. It simply came up short.
It was the end of what had been a final minute of miscues for the Vols (14-11, 6-6). After Fulkerson put Tennessee ahead 60-59 with a layup, Trae Hannibal’s errant pass was picked off and the Vols had the lead and the ball with less than a minute remaining. Santiago Vescovi was stripped by Kotsar, who carried the ball down into the paint where he was fouled by Jordan Bowden. Kotsar then hit the two ensuing foul shots to give the Gamecocks (16-9, 8-4) the lead. Fulkerson was called for a charge on the following possession and Kotsar hit two more free throws to give South Carolina a 63-60 lead. James was then fouled on the floor to send him to the line.
“They finished and we didn’t,” Rick Barnes said of South Carolina after the game. “In those situations, you can’t turn the ball over and you have to get shots up. We didn’t do that. Put us in the situation where we had to miss the free throw.”
It was a sour ending to a great performance by Fulkerson, who finished with a career-high 25 points to go along with nine rebounds, but the redshirt junior also had six turnovers and his charge at the end was another empty possession late in the game.
“I kept asking people if it was a charge,” Fulkerson said after the game. “If it is, I really hate that for myself because I feel like I am better than that and I don’t need to put myself in that position. I think that turnovers and missed free throws really dictated the game. If I don’t turn it over and I make my free throws I think we win the game easily.”
It’s probably unfair for Fulkerson to shoulder the bulk of the blame for the loss. Tennessee likely isn’t competing late in the game without him. He finished 8 of 12 from the field and 9 of 14 from the foul line. He drew four fouls in the first three minutes of the second half to help put Tennessee in the bonus, but Tennessee shot just 17 of 28 from the charity stripe. In a matchup that was decided by free throws the last time these two teams met a month ago, it proved to be the difference again.
Vescovi finished just 2 of 8 from the field and missed two of his three foul shots. Bowden struggled from the floor and scored only five points while missing six of seven shots. James didn’t start, but played 30 minutes off the bench and scored nine points while the Vols were outscored by South Carolina’s bench 27-11.
The Gamecocks had more field goal attempts and more foul shots thanks to 20 Tennessee turnovers that led to 22 points.
“That is something coach talks about, getting a shot every time,” said Fulkerson. “We would rather throw it at the rim than turn it over. Just trying to get a shot every time is something we try to get and getting those turnovers is very critical and really hurts us.”
Credit to Fulkerson for wanting to take the fall. He’s had more ups than downs this season and continues to show maturity and leadership on a team that lost some key leaders from the year before. Not to mention he has a year of eligibility remaining next season. He’s third in the SEC in field goal percentage and is averaging more than 19 points in his last four games.
Saturday was likely the coup de gras to Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament hopes, but with the recruiting class coming in, some promising underclassmen on the roster and someone like Fulkerson providing veteran leadership, there’s reason for optimism moving forward.
Speaking of moving forward, Tennessee hosts Vanderbilt (9-16, 1-11) on Tuesday at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Commodores are coming off a 84-66 loss at Florida on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 6:30 p.m. EST with Vol Network pregame coverage starting at 6 o’clock on FM 99.1 The Sports Animal.
SEC week in review
Man, when Auburn is good, it’s good. When Auburn loses, it loses bad. Bruce Pearl’s team trailed by 13 at the half to Missouri and didn’t get much closer in a 85-73 loss on the road. Auburn shot 46 free throws and missed 16 of them. Auburn shot 17 3-pointers and missed…16 of them. Yep, Auburn went an astounding 1 of 17 from behind the arc.
Auburn knows how tough it can be to win in Tuscaloosa. Like Auburn, LSU elected to find this out the hard way. The Crimson Tide built a 11-point halftime lead and led by as many as 18 before LSU came storming back to trail by as little as one with 1:33 remaining. Alabama held off the Tigers by doing what it’s done all season: shooting lots and lots (and lots) of 3s. Jaden Shackelford drilled a long ball to put Alabama back up by four and Alex Reese added another to help the Tide to a 88-82 win. Kira Lewis Jr. led Alabama with 27 points. Shackelford finished with 26. Alabama shot 13 of 35 from long range.
The biggest benefactor of the weekend with any Tigers outside of Missouri falling on Saturday was Kentucky, which needed to rally in the second half and survive an upset-minded Ole Miss team 67-62 at Rupp Arena. Kentucky trailed by seven with ten minutes remaining and led by one with Ole Miss able to hold for the final shot. Instead, Devontae Shuler pulled up with ten seconds still left on the clock for a contested 3-pointer, which he airballed. The result handed Kentucky sole possession of first place in the SEC. The Wildcats play LSU on Tuesday night and host Auburn at the end of the month.
In the final game with bubble implications, Mississippi State’s Abdul Ado tipped in a missed floater by Tyson Carter with 0.6 seconds left to give the Bulldogs a 78-77 win over Arkansas. Mississippi State needed that. The Bulldogs began the weekend off the bubble, per ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, while Arkansas was among the Last Four In. It’s a nice bounce back after Mississippi State was clobbered by Ole Miss on Tuesday.
Arkansas, meanwhile keeps suffering heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss. Since losing guard Isaiah Joe to a knee injury, the Razorbacks blew a 11-point second half lead before losing to Auburn in overtime, fell to Missouri in overtime, were blown out by Tennessee and rallied from a 17-point deficit in the second half to take the lead in the final minute, only to lose on Ado’s tip-in right before the buzzer. Eric Musselman will be okay in Fayetteville long term, but if Arkansas can’t win in Gainesville on Tuesday, the Razorbacks’ tournament hopes are over.
How is Georgia this bad? Anthony Edwards will be a top-3 pick in this year’s draft, but he’s not the only player on this team. Sahvir Wheeler and Toumani Camara are four-star prospects while Rayshaun Hammonds was a four-star himself back in the 2017 class. Tom Crean is 4-26 in SEC play as Georgia’s head coach. That shouldn’t be possible, but it is after the Bulldogs blew a double digit lead before losing to Texas A&M 74-69. Next season is likely a make-it-or-break-it year for Crean. He’s had too much talent to have only three more conference wins than Vanderbilt in the past two seasons.