John Fulkerson knew the shot clock was winding down and Tennessee needed something to halt a furious Florida comeback.
Fulkerson set his feet and let a 3-point shot fly from near the top of the key. The junior forward had only attempted one other 3-pointer in his entire career, and missed.
But his second attempt hit nothing but net, and helped the Vols secure their biggest victory of the season.
Fulkerson scored 22 points, including his clutch 3 and a tip dunk down the stretch, as Tennessee held on to beat Florida 63-58 on Saturday.
Tennessee (16-13, 8-8 SEC) led by 19 points with nine minutes remaining, but saw the Gators claw back behind Tre Mann and Kerry Blackshear Jr.
Florida (18-11, 10-6) got as close as one point in the final three minutes, but Fulkerson’s 3-pointer stemmed the rally.
“I was talking to Kerry Blackshear down at the other end and I was like, ‘That was God right there,’” said Fulkerson, who missed his only other career 3-point attempt against Arkansas earlier this season. “He said ‘good shot,’ and I was like, ‘I really can’t take credit for it.’”
The Vols defeated Florida for the fourth straight time, and have won five of the last six against the Gators.
Tennessee’s defense put the clamps on Florida in the first half, forcing turnovers, charges and a shot clock violation.
The Vols closed the half on a 16-3 run, highlighted by back-to-back 3-pointers from Jordan Bowden and Santiago Vescovi, to carry a 32-17 lead into halftime.
Florida had 11 turnovers, leading to 13 Tennessee points, and was 6 of 18 from the field and 1 for 7 from 3-point range through the first 20 minutes.
“I thought Tennessee was really disruptive and I thought they did a really good job with pressuring us, especially in the first half,” Florida head coach Mike White said. “We played unsettled and somewhat rattled in the first 25 minutes of the game. I think Tennessee had a lot to do with that.”
Tennessee expanded its lead to 48-29 on a play that sent the crowd, which included former UT quarterback great Heath Shuler and basketball star Dale Ellis, into a tizzy.
Some good ball movement that started with a behind-the-head pass by Vescovi ended with a Fulkerson dunk with 11:44 remaining.
Mann and Blackshear Jr. sparked Florida’s comeback on offense while Scottie Lewis tightened the defense. The Gators embarked on a 25-7 run to cut Tennessee’s lead to 55-54 with under three minutes remaining.
But Fulkerson swished his 3-pointer and then soared above the rim for a putback dunk to keep the Vols barely in front for the remainder.
After Fulkerson’s emphatic flush, the Tennessee fans began chanting “Fulky, Fulky, Fulky.”
“If someone asked me if I ever thought I would be playing in a Tennessee game and they would be chanting ‘Fulky,’ I would have never guessed it in my wildest dreams,” Fulkerson said. “It is like a dream come true. I am so blessed to be in the position I am and to be able to make some good plays.”
White wasn’t surprised by the Fulkerson’s production.
“I thought he had the best motor in the league,” White said. “I think he plays as hard as anyone in the SEC.”
Freshman Josiah-Jordan James scored 12 points, including 10 in the first half, and added eight rebounds and six assists for Tennessee. Vescovi finished with 11 points and Bowden had 10.
The Vols shot 52.1% from the field (25 of 48), and had only nine turnovers after reaching double-digits in many games.
Blackshear Jr., a graduate senior who considered Tennessee when he transferred to Florida from Virginia Tech, finished with 20 points and nine rebounds to lead the Gators. Noah Locke had 15 points and Mann scored all nine of his points in the second half.
“I told the team, as much as a coach I would have liked to have a little bit more comfort at the end of the game, the way we won the game was probably better for us because we have lost so many like that,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said.
ROCKY TOP HOMECOMING
Florida freshman guard Ques Glover returned home to play. The Knoxville native attended Bearden High, where he was teammates with Tennessee freshman Drew Pember.
Glover was 0 for 1 from the field in 19 minutes. Pember missed his second straight game while in concussion protocol.
Glover and Pember played Fortnite together during the week leading up to the game, but Glover said they didn’t engage in any trash talk.
Glover attended games at Thompson-Boling Arena when he was growing up, and had plenty of friends and family in the stands supporting him. To his disappointment, he said he didn’t receive an offer from Tennessee coming out of high school.
Tennessee freshman guard Santiago Vescovi got a surprise from his family. His parents, Pablo and Laura, and his sister, Lucia, traveled from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Knoxville for the first time to watch him play. They snuck up behind Vescovi before the game, and the family shared a big group hug once he realized it was them. Vescovi was a mid-year enrollee, and arrived at Tennessee on Dec. 28.
Florida seems safely in the NCAA Tournament with two regular-season games remaining, but the Gators didn’t help their resume with the road loss to a team nowhere near the NCAA bubble.
There is no NCAA Tournament in the future for Tennessee unless it makes a run and win the SEC tournament. But beating a rival is always good motivation. The Vols have two more chances with games against Kentucky and Auburn to close out the regular season.