Vols Find A Way In Statement Win At Kentucky

Posted at 9:55 PM, Feb 06, 2018

Somewhere deep in the bowels of Rupp Arena inside the Tennessee locker room there was a party as if it was 1999 Tuesday night. And it was well earned, as the 15th-ranked Vols knocked off no. 21 Kentucky 61-59 for their first sweep of the regular season series against the Wildcats in 19 years.

The win kept Tennessee (18-5, 8-3) alone in second place in the SEC, two games back of first place Auburn, and served as a major statement that it can be a force in March.

In a game that was so hotly contested neither team lead by more than four, Tennessee overcame a poor shooting night that included 23 percent shooting from three-point range and just one made field goal from star Grant Williams. The Vols won this game thanks to grit, effort, and an ever-growing belief that this team is special and will not be denied, even on the road in a place they hadn't won since 2006.

It would've been easy to hang their heads when Jordan Bone's turnover led to a Kentucky run out and a Jared Vanderbilt tip in to tie the game at 50 with 3:41 left. 

You wouldn't have even faulted them for folding when Admiral Schofield slipped and fell on the next possession, leading to a Kevin Knox steal and three-point play on the other end that gave the Wildcats a three point lead with 3:18 to go.

But Tennessee hit four free throws down the stretch and got a big steal from Kyle Alexander trailing by two with under 1:00 left. Moments later Lamonte Turner buried a three from the top of the key to give the Vols the lead.

The defense buckled down again, though, forcing yet another turnover that led to Schofield's rim rattling dunk that served as the exclamation point on the victory when Rick Barnes smartly instructed his players to foul rather than allow Kentucky a three-point shot to tie the game in the final seconds.

Barnes has pushed all the right buttons with this team all year. Remember, this is a team that was picked 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC's preseason poll. Tennessee began this week ranked 15th in the country by the Associated Press.

And that was before Tuesday's landmark win.

In a year where the list of March contenders appears wide open with a month to go before Selection Sunday, people better start paying attention to just how good this Tennessee team is.

Williams is a star, Schofield is a beast, Kyle Alexander is a matchup nightmare and guards like Turner and Jordan Bowden are starting to come into their own. This is still one of the youngest teams in America, but they are playing like seasoned veterans for Barnes.

They were the far more stable team in the clutch Tuesday night in Lexington despite facing a Kentucky team that has more pound for pound talent. The Vols have now won six straight games and four of their last five road games. 

There's another difficult road test coming Saturday at Alabama, but win that and Tennessee will sky rocket up the rankings and in the minds of selection committee members with a resume that already includes a win over Purdue and now two over Kentucky.

The goal is no longer just to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years. Tennessee still has a chance to catch Auburn for the SEC title, and maybe more importantly can work on securing a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament and perhaps the right to be "protected" with the short road trip to Nashville for opening weekend play.

Tennessee fans bellowed Rocky Top inside Rupp Arena as the clock ticked down Tuesday night, so you know they would show up in droves for the short tournament trip and will now be expecting to make plans for the following weekend as well.

These Vols aren't just a surprising underdog, they're legit. It's time the nation starts talking about them, because if they keep playing with the confidence and toughness they displayed Tuesday, they are going to be a tough out for anyone come March.