Vols finish 17-14 in strange season

Marvin Westwestwords

Since shortly after the beginning of time, we have been told the show must go on, just play the game, no excuses, and win or find another line of work.

We know there are exceptions to man-made rules. Even tax payments can be delayed. In this case, health and life take precedence over fun ‘n games.

Interesting questions: Will ESPN survive on reruns? How long will this chilling virus threat prevail before we stop worrying about sports?

There have been previous interruptions. Tennessee had no football or basketball teams in 1943. The Vols took time off for World War II. They did play football the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Yves Pons (Courtesy of UT Sports Information)

This was a strange basketball season even before the strange conclusion. Lamonte Turner’s retirement was a major blow. The emergence of Fulky was a delightful surprise. Strong jumper Yves Pons became the best defensive player in the SEC. Santiago Vescovi, far from perfect, was a gift from God.

Jordan Bowden’s senior season was marred by a strange shooting slump. Five-star Josiah-Jordan James got off to a gimpy start and landed far below expectations. Strange that bench players contributed very little in February, opposite the developmental norm. The long-awaited eligibility ruling for 7-footer Uros Plavsic turned out to be incidental.

The Volunteers finished 17-14, 9-9 SEC. Turnovers were the trademark. The team was several different things – unpredictable, inconsistent, thrilling at times, sometimes disappointing. At Rupp Arena, it was unbelievable.

The Tennessee that had previously blown massive leads against others launched an astonishing comeback, overcame a 17-point second-half deficit and stunned the Wildcats, 81-73.

“We got manhandled,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari.

John Fulkerson is not the man-handling type but he scored a career-high 27. James had 16, all after intermission. Pons made several key jumpers down the stretch.

UK fans couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The Wildcats had been 129-0 when leading by double digits at halftime.

Much earlier in the season, Tennessee fans couldn’t believe their eyes. The Vols had 21 turnovers versus Florida State. Turner made eight. That same Turner hit a three with 1.7 seconds to spare to beat Virginia Commonwealth. Cincinnati shot 56.3 per cent and scored 46 in the paint. Coach Rick Barnes said the defense was awful. He did not use the word his.

Turner surrendered to the shoulder injury after 11 assists in the Jacksonville State game. He didn’t do much shooting because it hurt to shoot.

“I cried when I came back in the locker room, just knowing that was my last time stepping out there. I have cried plenty of times thinking about it and I have cried plenty of times through this injury.”

Tennessee had no plan B. It lost by 20 at home to Wisconsin. The Vols had 17 turnovers and 16 field goals. Bowden made two of 13.

Vescovi arrived just after Christmas. Barnes said it was highly unlikely he would play. He played. He was good and bad against LSU, six threes, six rebounds, nine turnovers. He scored eight points in a crucial 54 seconds at Missouri.

Tennessee defeated South Carolina, 56-55. The game was much worse than ugly. Fulkerson got in front of a drive and drew a charge call with 1.4 seconds left. Gamecocks coach Frank Martin didn’t fault the referee. He said Fulky made a great play. Bowden missed 16 of 17 shots.

Tennessee played poorly at Georgia. That one was over before halftime.

“There’s not really a whole lot I can say about our guys,” Barnes said. “I’m disappointed in just about everything that you can be disappointed in.”

Tennessee shot 66.7 per cent in the second half and was dominant on defense at Vanderbilt. Fulkerson was the difference at Ole Miss.

Tennessee looked for a while like it might upset Kansas. Pons scored a career-high 24. Bowden scored all of his 19 points in the second half.

Texas A&M, stronger and more determined, overpowered Tennessee on the backboards and defeated the Volunteers despite shooting only 30.4 per cent. The Aggies were plus 25 on rebounds. A decisive part of rebounding is wanting the ball.

Mississippi State had a strong second half: 58 points, 69.6 marksmanship, 23-8 superiority on the backboards. Nothing quite like that had previously happened to a Barnes team.

Fulkerson scored 22 and helped lead Tennessee from 15 down to a desperately needed 69-68 victory at Alabama. Pons made the winning play, blocking a tying layup, capturing the ball and hitting two free throws.

Kentucky was the better team in Knoxville. Guards were superior.

Vescovi was 3-for-4 from behind the 3-point line against Arkansas. At South Carolina, a career-high 25 points and nine rebounds from Fulkerson weren’t enough to offset 20 Tennessee turnovers.

Strange season. Fulkerson didn’t hit a shot for more than 30 minutes in the second Vanderbilt game. The finish was wild and reckless. Vandy was down 13 with 2:27 remaining. The Commodores trailed by two with eight seconds left. Bowden had to hit a pair of free throws.

Tennessee led by 17 in the second half but Auburn cashed in Volunteer turnovers, erased the deficit with 18 uninterrupted points and had all the answers down the stretch. The Vols lost the ball 24 times. Tennessee came home with two unused timeouts.

Two dramatic goals by Fulkerson led Tennessee to a weird victory over visiting Florida. The Gators, behind by 19 at one point, got as close as one.

The victory at Kentucky was the highlight of the year. The finale against Auburn was among the lowlights. The Tigers dominated and won by 22 at Thompson-Boling Arena. They claimed ownership of the backboards by a staggering 42-26 margin. Tennessee shot 33.3 per cent.

Think about this: While nursing faint hopes of regaining NCAA tournament consideration, with 21,156 fans providing “a cauldron of chaos,” Tennessee got bopped, smack on the nose, in its own backyard.

This was a strange way to observe Senior Day.

Send comments or questions to marvinwest75@gmail.com

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