KNOXVILLE—John Fulkerson spent the final eight minutes of Tennessee’s loss to Alabama on Saturday on the bench as the Vols attempted a comeback that never manifested itself.
Afterward, Tennessee coach Rick Barnes challenged the redshirt senior forward, adding that if Fulkerson could not figure it out, he would be in danger of losing minutes to players more deserving. The Kingsport native never heard those words but being relegated to the sidelines was a strong enough message.
“I thought I should be on the floor because it was crunch time, and I’m not saying my teammates out there weren’t getting the job done, but I felt like I could help the team win whether it was scoring or passing,” Fulkerson said. “That message was sent clear to me. I can’t just come out and it’s going to happen. I have to bring it every night because we’re going to get everybody’s best shot … and if not, Coach is going to let you know.”
Fulkerson lived up to the expectations bestowed upon him in the second half of No. 9 Tennessee’s 79-74 come-from-behind victory over Arkansas on Wednesday inside Thompson-Boling Arena, scoring 12 of his 16 points on 4-of-7 shooting to go along with five rebounds, three assists and two blocks in 17 minutes of action after the intermission.
He scored nine of Tennessee’s first 11 points of the period to trim Arkansas’ lead down to 46-44 and kickstart an improved offensive performance in which it shot 50% from the floor and got to the free-throw line 21 times.
“If you let a team like Arkansas stretch it out on you, they’re a hard team to come back against because once they get feeling good and get going, like most teams, they can put some runs together,” Barnes said. “I think we played with much more purpose offensively.
“… There’s no doubt that in the second half we came out and said, ‘We’re going to put that ball inside,’ and they did it.”
Fulkerson’s early production led to the inside-out offense that UT (8-1, 2-1 SEC) covets.
He got the ball on the block with 11 minutes, 25 seconds remaining and kicked out to junior guard Victor Bailey Jr. for a in-rhythm 3-pointer that gave the Vols a 52-49 lead. The combination worked again two minutes later to put Tennessee back on top after a JD Notae layup. Arkansas tied it at 59 on the ensuing possession, but the Razorbacks never led again.
“I think that the second half was really a reflection of our team coming together and playing as a team,” Fulkerson said. “We knew that if we did what we practiced we were going to get the job done. I think we did just that.”
For one half, Fulkerson looked like he did last season when he was named All-SEC Second Team by the conference’s coaches despite battling a left thumb injury and adding another ailment when he landed awkwardly after attempting a dead ball dunk midway through the second half.
That return to form stemming from an early-season benching came when Tennessee, which was the preseason favorite to win the SEC, needed it most.
“(Barnes) knows the type of player I can be, how I can perform and how I can help my teammates,” Fulkerson said. “I was definitely not playing to my potential, but my coaches and my teammates have really given me confidence to step it up.”