By Jimmy Hyams
John Fulkerson channeled his inner Bernard King, igniting Tennessee to an 81-73 victory Tuesday night over No. 6 Kentucky over a stunned crowd in Rupp Arena.
King famously vowed he would never lose to Kentucky again after a Wildcat fan flicked a cigarette in King’s hair. He didn’t.
Fulkerson flicked in 27 points and was brilliant from start to finish as Tennessee rallied from 17 down in the second half for a rare sixth win at Rupp.
“We got manhandled,’’ Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I got manhandled.’’
ESPN’s Jimmy Dykes, color analyst for the game, said Fulkerson’s performance was one of the best by an SEC player on the road this season.
The 6-foot-9 junior from Kingsport was 10 of 15 from the field (7 of 7 in the first half) and scored from all angles against one of the SEC’s best defenses. He also was seven of seven at the foul line.
“He was terrific,’’ said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes. “What he did tonight was one of the greatest performances I have witnessed.’’
Kentucky led 42-31 at halftime and would have had a larger lead if not for Fulkerson.
The Wildcats (24-6, 14-3 SEC) led 51-34 in the second half and you could hear the Fat Lady clearing her throat.
But Tennessee (17-13, 9-8 SEC) mounted a terrific – and unexpected – charge. UT’s 29-9 run over 10 minutes helped snap a 10-year streak in which the Wildcats won with a double-digit halftime lead (129-0).
“The game got physical and we couldn’t compete,’’ Calipari said. “We tried different ways to score and we just had nothing.
“But give credit to Tennessee. They could’ve gone away down 17 but that’s Rick Barnes.’’
It marked at least the eighth time an SEC team rallied from at least 15 down to win on a Tuesday night. Tennessee rallied from 15 down last month to upend Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
“We just kept fighting,’’ said Fulkerson, making a statement to be an All-SEC selection. “I kept trying to look at the score at the top of the (scoreboard) and couldn’t find it, which I guess was a good thing.
“This was no surprise to me. I knew we were capable of this. I knew that if everybody comes to play, we can get the job done.’’
Kentucky, projected as a two seed in the NCAA Tournament by Joe Lunardi, had won 10 of its 14 SEC games by single digits with almost all of its conference wins in the balance with six minutes left.
It didn’t look like Tennessee would come within single digits. But Fulkerson’s refuse-to-lose attitude was joined by several teammates in the second half.
Yves Pons scored 15, 12 in the second half. His back-to-back baskets gave UT a 72-66 lead with 1:48 left. Kentucky didn’t have an answer.
Josiah-Jordan James had a putback and three free throws late to seal the deal. He scored 16 points, all in the second half, and had seven rebounds and five assists.
Tennessee finally caught Kentucky with 6:42 left when a James 3 capped an 8-0 run.
Tennessee shot 52.8% from the field. Kentucky shot 44.6% but was over 50% until the final 10 minutes.
Shooting 24.5% from 3-point range in home SEC games, Kentucky was four of five on treys in the first half and finished 6 of 13. UT was 8 of 18 from long range.
UT won the battle of the boards, 31-26.
Kentucky is now 161-6 all-time against unranked opponents at Rupp Arena.