NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Volunteers could be without their big senior for the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals against sixth-ranked Alabama.
Coach Rick Barnes said John Fulkerson was taken to a hospital Friday for observation, possibly for an eye injury, after a couple of elbows from Florida forward Omar Payne to the head early in the second half.
“We’ll wait and see,” Barnes said. “But my gut feeling he took two pretty good licks there, and I’d be surprised if he is available.”
Santiago Vescovi scored 14 points to lead five Volunteers in double figures, and Tennessee beat Florida 78-66 to advance to the SEC semifinals for a third straight tournament.
The Volunteers (18-7) also won their second straight over Florida in the span of six days. The first gave the Vols a bye to the SEC quarterfinals, and they never trailed Friday to advance to Saturday’s semifinal against sixth-ranked Alabama, the SEC regular-season champ and an 85-48 winner over Mississippi State.
Yves Pons nearly had a triple-double with 11 points, eight rebounds and nine blocked shots that tied the SEC tournament single-game record set by Kentucky’s Andre Riddick in the 1993 title game. Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer each had 13 points for the Vols, and Josiah-Jordan James added 10 with nine rebounds.
Florida (14-9) lost for the second time in three games.
Tre Mann, who was 1 of 8 for two points in the first half, finished with a career-high 30 points for the Gators. Tyree Appleby added 14.
Tennessee beat Florida 65-54 last Sunday to split the season series and earn the bye over the Gators. The Vols seemingly picked up where they left off, taking the lead off a Fulkerson dunk 16 seconds into the game. They led 31-22 at halftime.
Play got heated with 17:10 left when Fulkerson had to be helped to the locker room after a pair of elbows to his head from Payne. Replays showed Payne caught Fulkerson’ with a left, forearm shiver to the face, then put his right elbow into Fulkerson’s head. Officials ejected Payne after review.
Florida coach Mike White said after the game he hadn’t seen a replay of the foul.
“I hope he’s OK,” said White, who gave Fulkerson an ovation on Senior Day last weekend. “Got a lot of respect for him, the way he plays, the way he approaches the game.”
The Vols, who led 35-26 at the time, scored eight of the next 11 and pushed the lead to as much as 17.
“I saw him just elbow Johnny in the face,” Pons said. “There’s nothing to do on the basketball court, and of course we took it personally.”
Tennessee shared a video from Fulkerson on Friday night showing the senior with a shiner under his right eye. Fulkerson thanked fans for their support over the past few hours but also said he wasn’t sure of his status for the semifinals.
Florida: The SEC’s best-shooting team couldn’t outshoot the Vols as they shot only 34.5% (20 of 58) compared to 46.7% (28 of 60). … The Gators also struggled with their composure a bit too. Not only was Payne ejected for the flagrant foul, they picked up another technical with 11:49 to go during a media timeout.
“I think we lack the emotional maturity that you need day in and day out to be a championship-level team,” White said.
Tennessee: Pons, the SEC defensive player of the year as a junior last season, had a career-high in blocked shots while also tying the school’s single-game record by halftime with six. The Vols had an 11-5 edge in blocked shots.
“He was terrific,” Barnes said. “I mean he was locked in.”
Tennessee hasn’t won this event since 1979. But the Vols now are a win away from reaching the championship game for a third straight tournament, not counting last year with the cancellation. First, they must beat Alabama, which handed the Vols their first loss this season 71-63 on Jan. 2 in Knoxville.
Florida now waits for its NCAA Tournament seeding that wasn’t helped much by a win Thursday over Vanderbilt.