Tennessee (13-10, 5-5 SEC) stuck with No. 15 Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 SEC) for most of their physical matchup on Saturday, but the Vols ultimately fell to Kentucky 77-64.
Though the Wildcats had ten first-half turnovers, Kentucky came out of the gate playing like a ranked team.
The Wildcats pulled ahead early with efficient shooting and strong rebounding. Kentucky finished the half with 56% shooting and 18 rebounds.
The Vols were given multiple wide-open looks from beyond the arc but went just two-of-eleven from the 3-point line in the first half. Meanwhile, the Wildcats sunk three-of-seven from the arc.
Though they struggled with shooting early, the Vols were able to draw multiple fouls against many key Wildcat contributors.
“In the first half, we did what we wanted to do by trying to get their front line in some foul trouble,” Barnes said at the postgame press conference.
The Vols’ 12-of-16 free throw shooting kept them in the game, and Kentucky went into the second half with a 37-30 lead.
Fueled by a raucous crowd in Thompson-Boling Arena, the Vols made a huge push with 12 minutes remaining in the game. Tennessee shut down the Kentucky attack for over three minutes while Santiago Vescovi connected on two 3-pointers that cut the Kentucky lead to four points.
“I think he’s a very good shooter,” Vol forward John Fulkerson said after the game. “Santiago being able to shoot it just spaces the floor and kind of gets the defenders out. That makes it easier to drive and to make plays.”
Vescovi hit another 3-pointer with just over three minutes left, but Kentucky took over from there. Aided by their deep bench, The Wildcats closed the game out with efficient shooting and solid decision making to come out on top 77-64.
“We just couldn’t stop them in some late game situations when I thought we defended them pretty well,” Barnes said. “Then we get behind a little bit. We started hurrying up. We had some looks at it that we’d like to make, but they didn’t go down and it can get away from you quickly.”
The Vols were able to stick around for almost the entire game, but Kentucky found another gear to put Tennessee away in the last couple minutes.
“[Rick Barnes’] teams are not going to give you the game, you’ve got to take it,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They’re not going to do stuff to cost them a game; you’re going to have to take the game in this building.”
Tennessee has had a couple of tough challenges in the last couple weeks in ranked opponents Kansas and Kentucky, but the slate does not get much easier from here.
“We play the remainder of the month with top 50 teams,” Barnes said. “It is a great opportunity for us to do some things down the stretch. I don’t think that anyone thinks that we are an easy out. I know our guys think that we can win every time we take the court.”
Next up, Tennessee will be back in Thompson-Boling Arena to take on Arkansas on Tuesday, Feb. 11. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. in Knoxville.
Edited by Ryan Sylvia and Ben Gleason
Photo by Christian Knox