By Jimmy Hyams
Tennessee isn’t likely to make the NCAA Tournament.
But that doesn’t mean the Vols haven’t played like an NCAA tourney team in spurts this season.
They did in taking a 17-point lead against Auburn in the second half.
They did during an 11-0 run at Arkansas to cut a huge deficit to two.
And they did Saturday against Florida, a likely NCAA Tournament team.
John Fulkerson’s follow dunk and improbable 3, and two clutch free throws by Santiago Vescovi helped the Vols (16-13, 8-8 SEC) hold on to a 19-point second half lead for a 63-58 victory over Florida (18-11, 10-6) – UT’s fourth in a row over the Gators and fifth in six tries.
There was reason to wonder if Tennessee could cash in on 48-29 lead with less than 12 minutes to play.
After all, this was a team that blew a 17-point second-half lead at Auburn and blew a 7-point lead in the final minutes against South Carolina.
The difference this time: Tennessee was at home and the Vols made key plays at crunch time.
As expected, Florida made a second half run to cut UT’s lead to 55-54 with 2:55 left.
A nervous crowd of 19,743 was biting its collective finger nails, sensing another collapse from a fragile team that had folded before.
But this time, Tennessee managed to flip the script.
With the shot clock winding down and UT in-bounding the ball with 2 seconds left on the shot clock, John Fulkerson, who had never made a 3-pointer in his college career, heaved the ball toward the goal.
“It felt good,’’ he would say later.
It went in. The crowd erupted.
Tennessee led 58-54 with 2:24 remaining.
There was still work to be done, but Fulkerson, who missed the front end of two 1-and-1s late, made what Florida coach Mike White called “a huge play.’’
After a Florida field goal, Fulkerson then scored on a follow dunk with 46 seconds left for a 60-56 lead.
Florida answered with two free throws 19 seconds later.
With Tennessee inbounding, coach Rick Barnes had one demand, and it was aimed at his freshman point guard Vescovi: “Whatever you have to do, go get the ball.’’
That’s how much faith Barnes has in Vescovi at the line late in a game.
Vescovi rewarded his coach’s confidence by hitting two free throws with 23.2 seconds left.
After an Yves Pons block, UT eventually got the ball and Josiah-Jordan James made one of two free throws to seal the deal.
Vescovi’s heroics were witnessed by his parents and sister, who surprised him by flying in from Uruguay to watch him play for the first time at Tennessee.
Fulkerson’s heroics were more surprising: he was 0-for-1 from beyond the arc as a Vol.
Vescovi said Fulkerson, now hitting 50% from long range, should shoot more 3s.
Vescovi was joking.
White wasn’t when he praised Tennessee’s junior forward.
“I told our guys, I think he has the best motor in the league,’’ White said. “I’m not sure anyone plays harder than he does. He plays with a ton of energy and intensity.’’
Another Vol also played with more energy: James.
In two of his previous three games, James went scoreless. Counting four games he missed with a groin injury, he had scored 20 points in UT’s last 10 games.
Barnes said James needed to be more aggressive.
James had eight points in the first 9:30. He had 10 points (two of 3 on 3s) and four rebounds in the first half.
“James played the way we want to see him play,’’ Barnes said. “We’re a different team (when he’s engaged).’’
Tennessee’s last two regular-season games are against the SEC’s two best teams: at Kentucky and at home against Auburn.
Tennessee might not win either game.
But at least the Vols have shown they can play like an NCAA Tournament team.
And that gives them a puncher’s chance.