LEXINGTON, Kent. (WTVF) — Rick Barnes said that, good or bad, Saturday night’s result in Tennessee’s top five showdown at Kentucky would not define the Vols’ season. The Wildcats’ convincing 86-69 victory ended Tennessee’s 19-game winning, but may have been exactly what Barnes’s team needed.
Tennessee kept winning, yes. But as recently as after Wednesday’s victory over South Carolina star forward Admiral Schofield suggested the Vols needed to put together a full 40 minute game.
But the urgency to pay attention to the little details defensively or box out on every rebound can be lost when you’re winning by double digits every night. That complacency finally caught up with Tennessee inside a frenzied Rupp Arena.
“Kentucky kicked our butt, plain and simple,” Schofield said after the game.
The Wildcats rode a record crowd of 24,467 to 59 percent shooting in the first half and a six point lead. Stars P.J. Washington and Keldon Johnson combined for 20 of UK’s 37 points in the half while doubling up the production of UT’s top duo of Schofield and Grant Williams.
The game really was blown open early in the second half as Kentucky stormed out of the locker room with a 14-0 run to push the lead to 20, and then eventually 24, which was Tennessee’s largest deficit of the season.
The Vols showed some heart with a 14-0 run to get back in it, but that was as close as they would get.
Kentucky outtoughed Tennessee all night, winning the majority of 50/50 balls, and taking the rebounding battle 39-26. The Wildcats also outperformed the Vols, dicing them up offensively to the tune of 54 percent shooting.
Defeat suffered. Lesson learned.
The Vols know they have to play better, and now they know what can happen if they don’t.
Now it’s up to them to respond in the same way that Kentucky did after falling apart in the second half Tuesday against LSU and losing on a tip in at the buzzer. The Wildcats came back with focus and a vengeance Saturday night.
The good news for Tennessee is that all its goals remain remain within its reach. At 11-1 the Vols still remain in first place in the SEC, now tied with LSU and a game up on Kentucky. And a strong finish to the season should secure a no. one seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Barnes is right. Nothing more than a basketball game was lost here Saturday night. And now he has his players’ full attention.
Tennessee’s last SEC regular season loss came 364 days ago at Georgia. It responded by winning six straight games to share the league’s regular season crown and reach the conference tournament final.
The Vols have been here before, and they’re confident they’ll bounce back.