Tennessee drops SEC Championship game to Kentucky

No. 13-ranked and second-seeded Tennessee fell to No. 4 seed Kentucky in their first SEC Championship appearance since 2009 by a score of 77–72. Forwards Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield combined for 37 points and 19 rebounds in the loss at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Head coach John Calipari and the Wildcats notched their fourth straight conference on Sunday.

It was all Kentucky to start the game, as the Wildcats couldn’t miss and went on a 13–5 run to start the first half. Tennessee started out shooting just 4-of-20 from the field, while Kentucky began with 50 percent shooting from the field. Freshman phenoms Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox combined for 24 points to start the game.

“We started the game and dug ourselves a hole,” said Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes. “We weren’t playing the way we were capable of. Offensively, we weren’t making shots.”

However, Schofield put the Volunteers on his back with a whopping 17 first half points. The Vols rode a 15–3 run to end the first half to cut the game down to just a five-point deficit at halftime.

The rest of the team combined for just 14 points, as Tennessee went into the half trailing just 36–31 after 20 minutes of play. The Volunteers came back despite shooting just 28 percent from the field and making just 4-of-13 shots from beyond-the-arc.

Barnes and Tennessee came out of the half with a new lease on life, as Tennessee finally took over the lead at the 16:39 mark with a 3-pointer from Schofield. The Wildcats responded with a 14–2 run to set the Vols back once again by a score of 52–43 with over 12 minutes to play.

The Volunteers responded clutch 3-pointer from SEC Co-Sixth Man of the Year Lamonte Turner and a jumper from Williams cut Kentucky’s lead down to just five points once again. A 14–3 run from Tennessee once again gave them a lead, after Turner drilled consecutive 3-pointers to give the Vols a 57–55 lead.

A huge blow was dealt to the orange-and-white after Wenyen Gabriel of the Wildcats landed on Schofield’s head, causing him to go back to the locker room. Still, The Volunteers kept it knotted up at 59–59 with six minutes remaining in the game despite Schofield’s absence. Shortly after, both teams entered the bonus with over five minutes left in the second half.

Schofield re-entered the game at the 4:20 mark, as Tennessee faced a 66–62 deficit with less than four minutes left in the game. Kentucky was dealt a huge blow themselves with 2:45 remaining, as the sharpshooting Gabriel fouled out.

Guard Jordan Bone banked in a ridiculous shot from beyond-the-arc to cut the Wildcats lead to just 68–67 with just over a minute remaining in the game. Gilgeous-Alexander responded with a clutch jumper to put Kentucky up three points and forcing the Vols to send the Wildcats to the free throw line.

Schofield tipped in a shot to bring Tennessee within three points once again, but it wasn’t enough as the Vols lost for the first time in six games.

“It’s hard to flush that, but we’ve got something big to look forward to,” said Schofield. “We wanted to go out and win this for our University, coaching staff, families and fans.”

The Volunteers will get back in action on Thursday as a №3 seed in the South Region in the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee will take on №14 seed Wright State.

Edited by Ben McKee 

Featured image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics 

Takeaways from No. 15 Tennessee’s win at Rupp Arena

Rick Barnes and No. 15 Tennessee went into Rupp Arena on Tuesday night and knock off No. 24 Kentucky for the first time in 19 years on Tuesday evening. Tennessee basketball has been a rollercoaster ride in Barnes’ first couple of seasons, but it seems he has the team on track. Many would even say he’s ahead of schedule.

Here is what to take away from Tuesday’s win over the Wildcats.

Lamonté Turner is the go-to guy down the stretch

Turner was the reason Tennessee upended No. 3 Purdue earlier in the season, and he put the dagger in the Wildcats with only seconds remaining on the clock in Tuesday’s win over Kentucky.

Turner finished the game with 16 points and drilled four 3-pointers on his way to logging 31 minutes on the night. The redshirt-sophomore has now scored 15 or more points off of the bench seven times and has scored 20 or more points four times this season.

The Vols have needed a consistent closer and Turner has become that down this crucial stretch in conference play.

The Vols are back

The stat that will be thrown around until Tennessee plays Kentucky next season is that the Vols swept the Wildcats for the first time in 19 years.

Rick Barnes has Tennessee back in national contention in only his third year with the program, and Knoxville owes him a big pat on the back.

Tennessee, who has been knocked for its low recruiting rankings, has itself a coach that can not only bring quality and underrated players to campus, but can develop those players into some of the best players and teammates in the SEC.

Tennessee is being talked about for its chances of grabbing a No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament – something that has never happened in Knoxville. Tennessee owes that solely to Barnes.

Bench play the deepest in the conference

Tennessee has seven players who log at least six points per game. Out of those seven players, all of them average over 20 minutes of game play per contest.

The Vols have not only the deepest roster in the conference, but the deepest bench as well. This is a team that has grown together tremendously since a tough 0-2 start to conference play in January.

This team relied heavily on Grant Williams throughout its tough stretches, but the depth on the roster has finally caught up to where the team wants to go – whether that is due to the development of those players by Barnes, or the unselfishness of the players, this will be a tough team to beat down the stretch if it can continue to close out games with key role players playing like they did tonight.

Edited by Seth Raborn

Feature image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

No. 15 Tennessee looks for its first sweep of Kentucky since 1999

No. 24 Kentucky (17-6, 6-4 SEC) looks to defend Rupp Arena and prevent a historic sweep from No. 15 Tennessee on Tuesday night. The Volunteers have tallied just five total victories in Rupp Arena, but look to sweep the Wildcats for the first time since the 1998-99 season under head coach Jerry Green.

In the last meeting between the two teams, Tennessee upset then-ranked No. 17 Kentucky 76-65 in Thompson-Boling Arena. Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams combined for 38 points and 17 rebounds for the Vols and the Big Orange out-rebounded the Wildcats by a margin of 37-30. Since their Jan. 7 meeting, things have been trending opposite ways for the two teams.

Kentucky is coming off one of its worst losses in head coach John Calipari’s time in Lexington. The Wildcats dropped their first ever loss to Missouri by a score of 69-60 after having a 10-game win streak over the Tigers. The only Kentucky player with over 10 points was freshman guard Shai-Gilgeous-Alexander as the Wildcats shot a dreadful 31 percent from the field.

Kentucky lost despite out-rebounding Missouri 40-36 and forcing 20 turnovers. This was mostly due to the Wildcats 2-of-20 shooting from beyond-the-arc and being held to just 18 points in the first half. Calipari and Kentucky gave up a combined 32 points to Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robinson of Missouri.

“Give Missouri credit,” said Calipari. “They did a great job and fought. I thought we had our chances at the start of the second half, and then we come down and do freshmen stuff.”

Meanwhile, the Vols are fresh off a dominant 94-61 drumming of Ole Miss on Saturday for their fifth straight win, which is their longest streak of the season. In one of its most impressive performances under head coach Rick Barnes, Tennessee had five players reach double-figures. Williams led the Volunteers with 17 points and four rebounds on the night, while guard Lamonte Turner caught fire from 3-point land to tally 17 points on the night as well.

“It looked like we were shooting into the Atlantic Ocean,” Barnes said. “Those come along once a blue moon. Defensively we locked in.”

Tennessee forced Ole Miss into 17 turnovers, as it made just 35 percent of its field goals in the loss. Most importantly, the Vols got more player involved than they have all season on Saturday, as 11 different players recorded at least two points in the game. Tennessee’s 94 points were a season-high.

Barnes’ squad has now topped their win total from last year. However, Barnes still believes his team can improve.

“History proves time and time again that when you start praising your team all the time, they relax, and they stop improving,” Barnes said. “And we need to keep improving. We can be a lot better.”

Edited by Ben McKee

Photo By Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics

No. 23 Tennessee wins third in a row at home against No. 17 Kentucky

No. 23 Tennessee (10-4, 1-2 SEC) took down No. 17 Kentucky (12-3, 2-1 SEC) by a score of 76-65 to register its first SEC win of the season. Junior Admiral Schofield and sophomore Grant Williams combined for 38 points, 17 rebounds, eight assists and six steals in the Vols upset win over the Wildcats.

Kentucky seemed to have Tennessee all, but spiraling after one half of play, as the Wildcats led 37-29 at halftime. The Wildcats shot a smooth 56 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond-the-arc at half. Meanwhile, the Volunteers shot 33 percent from the field and committed eight turnovers.

A pair of Wenyen Gabriel 3-pointers put Kentucky on a 9-0 run with 7:51 remaining in the first half. However, Schofield knocked down a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to three with just over four minutes remaining in the first half. Still, the Wildcats were able to pull away, entering the half on a 9-4 run.

“Coach Lanier did a good job of, because he scouted the game, showing us 11 points that came off of not following our scouting report,” said Barnes about what changed after the first half.

“They’re going to make some baskets, just like we make baskets, but you don’t want them making the ones where we fail to execute our game plan.”

The game plan that Barnes and his staff used clearly worked, as they were able to flip the script in the second half. Tennessee outscored the Wildcats 47-28 in the second half, and shot a remarkable 55 percent from the field. The Vols were able to come out of the gates quick with a 6-0 run that closed the deficit.

A layup from Kentucky’s Nick Richards put the Wildcats up 47-44 on Tennessee, but what followed would be the turning point in the game. The Volunteers answered by logging nine straight points and going on a 16-3 run that put them up 10 points with just over eight minutes remaining. Late foul trouble for the Wildcats, as well as an injury to Kentucky’s star play played in favor for the Vols.

The Wildcats had five players that finished with over three fouls in the contest and two that fouled out. Gabriel, who had 11 points in the game, fouled out with 12 minutes remaining in the game. Starting Kentucky forward PJ Washington (13 points), who was clearly the best player on the floor, went down early in the second half.

“As soon as we had PJ out of the game, we had no shot at winning because every one of their players at that point was tougher than our guys,” said Wildcats head coach John Calipari. “When PJ went down, they saw the wounded animal and went right at it.”

The loss of Washington was just enough to let Tennessee hold on to the win. The Vols were able to make their free throws as Schofield slammed home a massive dunk with 23 seconds left to put a nail in the coffin for Kentucky. Tennessee out-rebounded the Wildcats 37-30, which is the most they have been out-rebounded by all season. Also, Tennessee recorded assists on 23 of its 25 baskets and had an assist rate of 92 percent on the night.

“We are Tennessee. Nobody respects us. We haven’t done anything, we haven’t won anything, and we haven’t been in the tournament in years,” Schofield said. “We have to just go out and compete every night, no matter if we are ranked or not because it’s just a number.”

Edited by Ben McKee

Featured image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics 

No. 23 Tennessee looking to get back on track against No. 17 Kentucky

No other team in college basketball has beaten Kentucky more than Tennessee. The Kentucky series is the Vols oldest and most-played among SEC opponents. When the two teams meet Saturday night, they’ll be playing for the 223rd time as the Vols look for their 70th win over the Cats.

A win over No. 17 Kentucky would be a big one for No. 23 Tennessee (9-4, 0-2 SEC). The Vols stumble into the rivalry, having lost their first two conference games after an impressive run through non-conference play.

After falling to Arkansas 93-95 in overtime and Auburn, 84-94, in its SEC home-opener, Tennessee has lost back-to-back games for the first time all season. Now staring an 0-3 start in conference play right in the face, the Vols have to get back to playing with the effort, intensity and edge they possessed to start the season.

“Everyone doing their job. Not taking anything for granted,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said about what his team needs to do in order to get back on track in a media availability on Friday morning. “What I’ve hope they’ve learned is that if they play that way, we’re not a very good basketball team. We need everybody to do their job for us.”

While Tennessee has stumbled of late, Kentucky has begun to hit its stride. John Calipari’s squad may be the youngest team in the country, but the Cats roster is still one of the most talented in the country.

“From the beginning to where they are now, they’ve continued to improve every game,” Barnes said of Kentucky. “Long, athletic, a team that they’ve gotten better all the way around, they’ve got depth and their bench has been good to them.”

Freshmen Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander lead the talented, but young Cats roster. Knox leads Kentucky in scoring at 14.6 points per game and 6.0 rebounds. Gilgeous-Alexander has really come on of late, leading Kentucky in scoring that last three games coming off the bench.

In its last time out, Kentucky survived its first road test of the season, defeating LSU 74-71. With the win, the Cats have won 10 out of their last 11 games with its lone loss coming to UCLA.

Thompson-Boling Arena hasn’t been kind to Kentucky of late, as the Cats have lost three of the last four games in Knoxville. Calipari knows just how difficult of a time his young team will have on Saturday night at 9 p.m. ET.

“They (Tennessee) could easily be 13-0,” Calipari said. “It’s going to be a war. It’ll be good for these guys to feel this. Playing on the road last game was good, and now you go here and it’s always a difficult game for us. Great environment, but it’s going to be hard.”

While the Cats may not be familiar with the Vols, Calipari and Barnes are great friends, and Calipari hates playing friends. While he may hate playing his buddies, Calipari has learned to appreciate the moment because many don’t survive this long in coaching.

“I just keep telling myself, because this becomes a grind, that I just need to be grateful that I’m having an opportunity to coach here and coach in these kind of games,” Calipari said.

But Barnes isn’t a “jagoff” according to Calipari. Barnes is somebody that he is genuinely happy to see have success.

“The only thing that is easier is if you do get dinged I can walk up and seriously say, ‘I’m happy for you,’ “Calipari said. “And I am happy for him (Barnes) and he knows it. There are other games that I just say, ‘Good job,’ and I’m not happy for you without saying it. At all.”

In order for Barnes to have success against Calipari on Saturday night, his workhorses are going to have to show up, something they didn’t do against Auburn last Tuesday.

Tennessee got outworked against the Tigers, being out-rebounded and out-hustled. According to guard Lamonte Turner, it was time to check the film, re-evaluate and correct the mistakes. The Vols need to get back to their roots. That being a team that hunts its opponents. Not one that gets preyed on.

On if he’s seen anything from his team to indicate they’ve gotten better, Barnes doesn’t know because he didn’t see what was coming before Auburn.

“I have no idea,” Barnes said. “I wish I could read it all because I would probably sleep a little bit better. We pretty much have had pretty good practices.

“There’s a lot of things the other night that we weren’t doing.”

The Vols need to have those things corrected by tipoff, as they can’t afford an 0-3 start in SEC play. While a three-game skid to begin conference play wouldn’t be cause to hit the panic button, it would become a concern of how long the skid could last with games against rival Vanderbilt and No. 11 Texas A&M on the horizon.

Tennessee has several players who can provide a much-needed spark, as three Vols – Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bowden – enter averaging double-figures in scoring while two others – Turner and Jordan Bone – are averaging just under 10.0 points per game.

Scoring won’t be what wins, or loses the game for Tennessee on Saturday. Whoever wins the game, will have won the battle on the boards. Against Auburn, Tennessee allowed the Tigers to grab 22 offensive rebounds, leading to 16 more field goals than the Vols.

Kentucky arrives in Knoxville averaging 39.9 rebounds per game, while Tennessee averages 38.1 rebounds.

Not only is Saturday’s contest big for the Vols in order to get back on track, but they’re also hosting a potential program-changer. Anfernee Simons – a five-star guard out of Florida – is visiting Knoxville this weekend. Simons is ranked the No. 9 overall player in the country and the No. 1 combo-guard in the country.

Simons would be a big coup for the Vols, but first they have to handle business on the court. How sweet would it be for Tennessee to knock off a Top 20 Kentucky team in an amazing environment with the biggest recruit they’ve had on campus in years to witness it?

In front of a sellout crowd, the Vols aim to do just that.

Edited by Seth Raborn

Feature image courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Bradford: The one-and-done era needs to end in Lexington

The beginning of every season in Lexington always sees John Calipari pressing the restart button.

Eight years into one of college basketball’s most illustrious jobs, Calipari has coached eight different sets of personalities and skill sets, making life as the Kentucky head basketball coach a double-edged sword of sorts. Nobody in the nation successfully recruits more upper-echelon talent than Calipari, but no coach is also forced to deal with the dramatic roster overhaul the Wildcats experience during every offseason.

This drastic change in personnel can be attributed to the type of player Coach Cal appeals to. Considering his sales pitch—which consists of him essentially saying “If you come to Kentucky, I’ll get you in the NBA after one season”—and the program’s iconic status in collegiate athletics, it’s no wonder five-star recruits flock to Lexington.

But while this method of recruiting has ushered the Wildcats out of their dark ages during the mid-to-late 2000s and into an era of annual Final Four contention, the fact that Coach Cal has only delivered one championship is disappointing, and the primary source for the lack of hardware is the breed of player he brings onto the hardwood.

As mentioned before, there is never a shortage of talent on a Kentucky roster. This current version of the Wildcats features young studs such as Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe, players who would be the top dog on 99.99 percent of teams in the country.

But the writing is on the wall. With Tuesday evening’s 82-80 loss to the sporadic Tennessee Volunteers at Thompson-Boling Arena, the Wildcats showcased what they’re destined for. Over the remainder of the regular season, Kentucky will drop a handful of games it shouldn’t, win a few games in March, but ultimately succumb to a more experienced and disciplined squad when it matters most.

As a Big Blue Nation disciple, I’ve seen it play out too many times.

In 2010, Calipari’s first season in Lexington, there was never a doubt who the best team in the country was. Led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky scorched its way to a 32-2 record prior to March Madness. The Wildcats eventually reached the Elite Eight, where West Virginia exposed the Cats’ lack of maturity. Instead of milking what got them there—Wall driving to the basket or feeding Cousins in the post—Kentucky became hyper-obsessed with knocking down a three-pointer when it became evident early on the team simply didn’t have its stroke. In the end, the Wildcats missed what seemed like their first 500 three-point attempts before drilling one late in the second half. At that point, though, the Mountaineers had the game wrapped up.

After a pair of failed championship runs in 2011—which ended in the Final Four against UConn—and 2014—which ended in the championship game against UConn—Kentucky embarked on a historic 2015 campaign, as the Wildcats threatened to become the first team to trudge their way through a season undefeated since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. However, they became victims of their own system—platooning—against Wisconsin in the Final Four. When pressed to have one player deliver the goods, the Wildcats simply weren’t prepared to abandon the system, even though they had a player in Karl Anthony-Towns perfectly capable of taking a game over.

As a side note, what did the 2011 and 2014 UConn Huskie teams have in common? Experienced guard play, an edge the Wildcats couldn’t overcome.

The exception for Kentucky is the 2012 season when the Wildcats rode the wave of Anthony Davis’ dominance to a championship. But that season was an outlier because Davis is an athlete of such rare quality and skill that he transcended his freshman tag. His skill set was so astronomically greater than everybody else’s that he could win a game a multitude of ways, whether it was dialing in on scoring, rebounding or blocking shots.

On average, a highly touted recruit under Calipari flashes brilliance, but isn’t so special that they’re dependable on a night-to-night basis. Just imagine Kentucky bringing in a team with the perfect blend of talent and experience every season. That wouldn’t be fair for college basketball because the Wildcats would hoist the championship trophy every season. Kentucky is already the gold standard program in college basketball, but a championship every season might elevate them to the NBA in place of the Brooklyn Nets.

The antidote for Coach Cal is simple. It’s time to start recruiting a new type of player. As appealing as those five meaningless stars are, the players who’ve obtained them are more than likely one-and-done. As long as those players take the floor in Rupp Arena, the Wildcats will always play a brand of inconsistent basketball that ultimately leaves the team ill-prepared to win a championship.

Edited by Robert Hughes

Featured image by Keith Allison