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Kingsport’s Fulkerson develops into star during junior season at Tennessee

Jeff Birchfield • Mar 29, 2020 at 12:30 PM

KINGSPORT — John Fulkerson went from a role player to a starring role for the Tennessee men’s basketball team.

As a junior, the 6-foot-9 forward averaged team bests of 13.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game for the 2019-20 season — significant increases from his 3.1 points and 2.6 rebounds the previous year.

Fulkerson, who started all 31 games this past season, considers his improvement to be a natural progression.

“The first of the season we had a couple of the best guards in the country in Lamonte (Turner) and (Jordan) Bowden. The offense was going to go through them,” said Fulkerson, who is now back home in Kingsport. “As the season went on, I played myself into the role I was in.”

Fulkerson had to take on a bigger scoring role when Turner, the starting point guard, was forced to end his college career and undergo season-ending shoulder surgery. Guard Santiago Vescovi and post Uros Plavsic later entered the lineup after receiving NCAA clearance, but the Vols never reached full strength during their 17-14 season.

“With Lamonte having season-ending surgery, then Santiago taking over as starting point guard halfway through the season, it made a lot of ups and downs,” Fulkerson said. “I think if we would have had our whole team and everybody healthy, some games would have had different outcomes.”

Tennessee fans were left to wonder what might have been had Turner and Vescovi played together in the backcourt. The Vols struggled early from long range before Vescovi brought a needed outside shooting touch.

Particularly difficult to take was a 51-47 loss to Memphis. Turner had five points on 1-of-11 shooting in the game between top-20 teams.

“The Memphis game was frustrating to lose because there was a lot of hype around that game, an in-state rival,” Fulkerson said. “It was disappointing to lose that game. The Texas A&M game was disappointing also. A couple others that come to mind are the Wisconsin game at home and game at Georgia. We had a few games this season we didn’t feel like we played Tennessee basketball.”

Fulkerson and his teammates certainly played “Tennessee basketball” in the second half of an 81-73 win at Kentucky.

The Vols rallied from a 17-point deficit behind Fulkerson’s best game of the season. He totaled a career-high 27 points, going 10-for-15 from the field and 7-for-7 from the free-throw line.

The game is likely to go down as one of the greatest victories in program history.

“It’s something that I or a lot of people will never forget with the comeback at Rupp Arena,” Fulkerson said. “We beat the No. 6 team in the nation at Kentucky with their fans. That game was a great team effort, fighting through the ups and downs and sticking together as a team.”

A 63-58 home win over Florida was even bigger for Fulkerson. He again shot 10-for-15 from the field, this time in a 22-point effort.

The Vols have won the past four games against the Gators and hold a 72-55 advantage in the all-time series.

“Kentucky is definitely a rival, but Florida is a bigger rival for us,” Fulkerson noted. “That’s the game we always look forward to. At that point of the season, we knew it was a must-win game. We knew we had to play well to beat them. We were up by a lot at the beginning and at the end they came back, but we made the plays at the end to beat them.”

Likely needing to win the Southeastern Conference tournament to earn an NCAA Tournament bid, the Vols were scheduled to play Alabama on March 12 in the SEC tourney when the season abruptly ended. The Vols were in Nashville and ready to go when word came the tournament was shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was an hour before the game when we learned about it. We were about to walk on the court to warm up when we heard they canceled it,” Fulkerson said. “We had heard about them canceling the NBA season and other tournaments, so we didn’t know if we would get to play it all or not. But we walk out of the locker room and they cancel it right there.”

Fulkerson’s mother, Ramona, then made the decision to turn a negative situation into something positive. She stayed in Middle Tennessee to help victims of recent tornadoes. Fulkerson wasn’t surprised to see how his mom reacted.

“That shows who she is. Hopefully, I can show that, too, in some ways,” he said. “She’s always trying to help others and putting others first. She’s always talking about using the blessings we have to help others.”

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