By Dan Fleser
KNOXVILLE – Tennessee’s Rick Barnes began his postgame comments Tuesday night with a nod of respect to his Vanderbilt coaching counterpart.
“I think Jerry Stackhouse has done a phenomenal job,” UT’s coach said. “He’s got his guys playing hard. They stay in it.”
Barnes wasn’t sending empty praise Stackhouse’s way. Led by Jordan Wright’s 23 points, the Commodores led by as many as five points during the second half. They whittled a 12-point deficit down to where the Vols needed two late free throws to preserve a 65-61 SEC men’s basketball victory before a relieved crowd of 18,562 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Barnes wasn’t in the mood to laud the uneven effort of his team, which featured three double-figure scorers. Former Vol Admiral Schofield was in attendance. He and former guard Lamonte Turner, whose career ended in December, spoke to the team afterward.
“I wasn’t real happy with how we started the game,” Barnes said. “I wasn’t happy with how we finished the game.”
For Tennessee (15-11, 7-6), the game began with John Fulkerson blowing an easy layup off an inbounds play under the basket. The miss was glaring enough to begin stoking Barnes’ frustration.
“I can’t explain it,” he said. “That’s a point-blank layup for a 6-9 guy. I think he should’ve dunked it.”
Fulkerson hadn’t been missing many shots lately. He was coming off a career-high 25 points against South Carolina last Saturday. In SEC play, he’d been averaging nearly 14 points per game and shooting 60 percent from the floor.
Yet the redshirt junior forward had just one point at halftime. He didn’t score his first basket until 9 minutes, 34 seconds remained.
“From the beginning tonight, he wasn’t there,” Barnes said. “This time of year, your key guys have to bring it every night.”
Fulkerson emerged from a timeout with 7:47 left as if he had gulped down some rocket fuel – or perhaps some of his favorite Lucky Charms cereal. He hit four free throws, recorded a block and converted a lob feed from Santiago Vescovi into a basket and a 53-48 UT advantage.
“I think Fulkerson was a focal point for them,” Stackhouse said. “We were allowing him to get too good of position on us. He was either getting fouled or scoring around the basket.”
Fulkerson’s 16 second-half points enabled the Vols to carry a 12-point lead into the game’s final minute. At that point, Vanderbilt’s defense had a hand in three Tennessee turnovers. The Commodores cut the deficit to two points until Jordan Bowden applied a tourniquet to the sudden hemorrhaging, hitting two free throws with five seconds left.
Barnes called the stumbling finish “really ridiculous.”
The coach reiterated that thought regarding, by his count, half of Vescovi’s six turnovers.
“It’s not respecting the game the way you need to respect the game,” said Barnes, who was more preoccupied with the egregious mistakes than Vescovi’s 14 points or seven assists.
Bowden matched Fulkerson with 17 points. The Vols senior guard also recorded five assists. It was a nice bounce-back performance from his five-point showing at South Carolina. But Bowden’s recovery only served to reinforce one of Barnes’ main points, which sounded more like a rebuke.
“The older guys,” he said, “They should be the ones totally locked in, leading the way.