No. 1 Tennessee ‘out-toughed’ in streak-snapping loss to No. 5 Kentucky

In the first-ever top-five matchup between No. 1 Tennessee and fifth-ranked Kentucky, the Vols fell to the Wildcats 86-69.

In a dark concourse underneath Rupp Arena late Saturday night, Tennessee senior guard Admiral Schofield could only shrug.

As the final tones of “My Old Kentucky Home” drifted within earshot, Schofield gave a pained smile as he analyzed the top-ranked Vols’ performance against the Wildcats.

“They out-rebounded us, they ‘out-toughed’ us, and the way we came out, the way we played, is not who we are,” Schofield said.

In front of the third-largest crowd in Rupp Arena history, No. 5 Kentucky rolled over No. 1 Tennessee 86-69.

The loss snaps a 19-game winning streak for Tennessee. Prior to Saturday’s matchup against the Wildcats, the Vols’ run stretched all the way back to Nov. 23.

On that night in Brooklyn, No. 5 Tennessee fell to second-ranked Kansas 87-81.

After the Vols’ loss to the Jayhawks, Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes called his team’s play “antsy, jumpy” and “too emotional.”

But after his team’s sobering defeat against the Wildcats, Barnes’ reasoning was exactly the opposite.

“Our number one emphasis was ‘let’s get it going, let’s do what we do,’ and we didn’t do it at all,” Barnes said. “They dominated us in every way we could have been dominated. All we wanted to do was try to get ourselves playing together and we just didn’t do that. I thought it was the most selfish that we’ve been all year.”

That “selfish” play put the Vols in an offensive hole, but solid performances from Kentucky sophomore P.J. Washington and freshman Keldon Johnson buried Tennessee as well.

Washington led the Wildcats with 23 points, including all seven of Kentucky’s first points of the night. Johnson notched 19 points of his own, including 11 consecutive points in the first half. 

Those buckets boosted Kentucky to a 37-31 lead at halftime, and at that point, Tennessee had been doing just enough to hang around. 

But a 14-0 run for the Wildcats set the tone for the second half.

Besides Washington and Johnson, Kentucky also got a large contribution from Tyler Herro, who finished with 15 points. 

Two of those points came on a shot the freshman missed then put back with a vengeance before flexing in celebration. Herro finished with 13 rebounds to lead Kentucky on the boards. In total, UK out-rebounded the Vols 39-26.

Barnes was less than pleased.

“We’ve been telling them for two and a half weeks now that we need to rebound the ball better,” he said. “We haven’t, and there are good enough coaches in this league that see this type of stuff. We kept telling our guys that sooner or later it’s going to bite us, and it bit us.”

The rebounding difference was due in part to Tennessee’s foul trouble. Kyle Alexander fouled out with eight minutes to play, and Schofield’s fifth foul sent him to the bench shortly thereafter.

“Well, we need Kyle (Alexander) to play because he gives us that length,” Barnes said. “If we’re going to go with a smaller lineup, we need to follow our scouting report. Obviously, they whooped us inside, and that’s what we tried to do, as well.”

While the Vols didn’t get enough from any one player, Kentucky finished with four scorers in double digits. 

Aside from Johnson (19), Washington (23) and Herro (15), Reid Travis notched 11 points, eight rebounds and one assist.

Early on, Washington’s seven-point streak came in between baskets from Bone, Schofield and Grant Williams.

Williams proved one of Tennessee’s lone bright spots on the night, as he finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and two assists, but he also had three turnovers.

After the matchup, the National Player of the Year candidate gave a similar account as Schofield for what went wrong.

“They ‘out-physicaled’ us tonight,” Williams said. “That’s not our identity. We have always been the tougher team. For that to happen, it shows we were phonies tonight.”

Jordan Bone led the Vols with 19 points, six assists and a rebound. Like Williams, though, Tennessee’s point guard also sacrificed three turnovers, and Barnes was quick to note Bone’s effect on a sluggish Vols offense.

“He’s the guy that determines if we play fast,” Barnes said. “He’s the guy that when he starts playing fast, we start playing faster. He didn’t.“

Schofield rounded out the double-digit scoring for Tennessee, as he finished with 17 points and six rebounds.

Late in the second half, chants of “Overrated” began to circulate from the Kentucky student section. Wildcats head coach John Calipari quieted the crowd quickly, though, shouting “No!” while pumping his hands downward.

“I know how good Tennessee is and that’s why I told our fans, enough of the ‘they’re overrated,’” Calipari said. “They’re not overrated. Probably underrated. People don’t realize.”

While the Vols’ four-week stint atop the polls will end on Monday, the season still rolls on for Tennessee.

And Williams said that the loss could end up benefiting UT more than people realize.

“We kind of need this, I believe, though,” he said. “We needed to be humbled. I feel like we had a sense of entitlement. But now we realize we have to compete.”

“We’re going to continue to grow from this,” Bone added. “It wasn’t a goal to be No. 1; we want something bigger. We still have a lot of basketball left and a lot of opportunities to grow as a team, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The Vols’ first chance to respond comes on Tuesday, as Tennessee will host Vanderbilt at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tip against the Commodores is set for 7 p.m., and the game will be shown on ESPN.

Edited by Robert Hughes

Featured image courtesy of Jake Nichols.