Big 12-SEC Challenge gives both leagues chance to impress

Tennessee guard Josiah-Jordan James (5) dribbles past Mississippi guard Devontae Shuler (2) during an NCAA college basketball game at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn. on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (Calvin Mattheis/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

KNOXVILLE—A pregame meal from Aubrey’s wasn’t enough, so John Fulkerson turned to a bowl of Lucky Charms to satisfy his hunger.

Shortly after, the redshirt junior forward poured in 16 first-half points to propel Tennessee to one of its best offensive periods of the season in a 73-48 rout of Ole Miss on Tuesday inside Thompson-Boling Arena.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever done that, and that’s the first time I’ve ever scored that many points in the first half probably throughout my whole career,” Fulkerson said. “I might be onto something with eating Lucky Charms before the game.”

Fulkerson added another bucket with five minutes, 20 seconds in regulation to round out a career-high 18-point performance on 7-of-8 shooting. He also corralled 10 rebounds to log his third career double-double.

It came a week after Tennessee coach Rick Barnes slammed the Kingsport native for refusing to become the post presence the Vols (12-6, 4-2 SEC) needed.

Barnes credited the turnaround to a reduction in Fulkerson’s minutes caused by the gradual improvement of freshman forward Olivier Nkamhoua, who scored 10 points on 3-of-3 shooting, and the addition of redshirt freshman forward Uros Plavsic.

“I think Olivier (Nkamhoua) we thought as a staff walking off the court that he had played his best game overall, doing what we need him to do,” Barnes said. “Some of those minutes that those two guys can give gets Fulky down around 25 or 27 minutes, where he probably plays his best basketball.

“I think he likes that better. It helps him. So hopefully those guys can keep getting better and we can keep his minutes down to that point.”

Fulkerson’s outburst helped Tennessee score 42 first-half points, tied for the third-most points it has scored in a period this season.

The Vols shot 51.9% (14-of-27) from the floor in the first half and 49% overall, continuing what has been an offensive renaissance for UT in its last two games after entering its Saturday meeting with Vanderbilt ranked 224th in the nation in offensive efficiency (0.954 points per possession).

Tennessee got back to the inside-out style that propelled it to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since 2009-10 over the past two years. It registered 50 points form 2-point attempts against Vanderbilt and 38 versus Ole Miss (9-9, 0-5) after averaging 32.9 through its first 17 games.

“I’d like to think they’re starting to understand what goes into winning. We certainly know what goes into losing,” Barnes said. “(Ole Miss) changed defenses early, like we thought they would. From the 1-3-1, then you get below the foul line and it’s going to morph into a 2-3. I thought our guys recognized that OK. We really made a conscience effort to put the ball inside.”

Two-time SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams was the foundation for the seventh-most efficient offense in the country a year ago. Nobody expected Fulkerson to fill those shoes, but the Vols needed him to be more assertive than he had been.

He was against Ole Miss, and the impact it had was obvious.

“I think my shots fall in our offense, and I credit my teammates for getting me the ball,” Fulkerson said. “I was sort of thinking about my shots, and I didn’t have to create a lot of them because my teammates create them for me. That’s a credit to them for running our offense, and not only getting me easy shots, but for everybody.”

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