The Vols emerged with a huge victory that snapped the Wildcats’ hot streak along with 10 perfect years of holding a double-digit halftime lead.
John Fulkerson scored a career-high 27 points, Yves Pons made several key jumpers down the stretch and Tennessee rallied from a 17-point deficit to upset Kentucky 81-73 on Tuesday night.
The Wildcats (24-6, 14-3 Southeastern Conference) had been 129-0 over the past 10 years when leading by double digits at halftime, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Considering how the Vols (17-13, 9-8) methodically converted that deficit into a lead over the final 20 minutes, they didn’t care.
“We just kept fighting,” said Fulkerson, who mingled with happy Tennessee fans long after the final horn. “I kept trying to look at the score at the top of the (scoreboard) and couldn’t find it, which I guess was a good thing.
“But it was such a team effort. Everybody played well. Guys from the bench came in and contributed. This was no surprise to me. I knew we were capable of this. I knew that if everybody comes to play, we can get the job done.”
The Vols also had the clock in their favor.
The Wildcats appeared in control, leading 51-34 early in the second half, before the Vols outscored them 29-9 over 10:09 to go up 63-60. Kentucky tied it at 63, but Pons answered with a 3-pointer and Fulkerson added two free throws.
Pons then added consecutive jumpers to make it 72-66 with 1:48 left. Nick Richards’ two free throws cut the lead to four, but Josiah-Jordan James put back his missed jumper to make it a six-point game again with 1:05 left.
James then made three free throws, and Santiago Vescovi and Jordan Bowden (11 points) each added two more in the final minute to seal Tennessee’s second consecutive victory and just its sixth at Rupp Arena. Two of those victories have come over the past three seasons, and the Vols have beaten the Wildcats six of nine times overall.
James finished with 16 points, all after halftime, and Pons closed with 15.
Fulkerson made his first seven attempts to finish 10-for-15 from the field along with all seven free throws to top his previous best of 25 points against South Carolina on Feb. 15.
“He was terrific,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said of the junior forward from Kingsport. “What he did tonight is one of the greatest performances I have witnessed.”
As for other players jumping in, Barnes added, “Our guys were confident even when we were down. When we were down, everybody made it happen.”
Tyrese Maxey had 21 points and Immanuel Quickley 15 for Kentucky, which clinched the SEC regular-season title last weekend. The Wildcats appeared poised to continue their best stretch this season before being outrebounded 23-12 in the second half and 31-26 overall.
“The game got physical and we couldn’t compete,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Don’t make it about us; it’s about Tennessee and how they played. They made some unbelievable shots, some 3s and they just kept coming.”
Tennessee could have wilted after Kentucky built the big lead, but the Vols stayed with it and outhustled the Wildcats on both ends. Fulkerson’s hot shooting kept them in the game before others got involved in the second half and knocked down big shots. They finished 53% from the field and 8 of 18 from long range.
Just when Kentucky appeared in gear and headed toward its 16th consecutive home win, the Wildcats got sloppy with the ball and missed shots. They followed up 55% shooting before halftime with just 33% in the second and saw their winning streak end at eight games. They finished 16-2 at Rupp, with losses to the Vols and unranked Evansville in November while ranked No. 1.
Tennessee seeks a season split at home Saturday against No. 17 Auburn, which is tied for second with LSU.
Kentucky aims to complete a season sweep on Saturday at Florida, which looks to regroup from its own loss to the Vols.