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 

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 

Making a case for Kentucky to win the NCAA tournament

De’Aaron Fox and the Kentucky Wildcats accomplished what even the most brilliant minds couldn’t: They shut LaVar Ball up.

At least, temporarily.

Fox scored 39 cold-blooded points — an NCAA tournament record for a freshman — and heavily assisted in holding Lonzo Ball to a pedestrian stat-line — 10 points, 4-of-10 shooting, 8 assists, 4 turnovers — and has Kentucky heading to familiar territory after taking care of business over UCLA.

Since 2009, the Elite Eight has featured Wildcat blue six times, an impressive feat considering John Calipari coaches a different team every year. Now, all that stands between the Wildcats and their 18th Final Four in program history are the top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels.

Two of the powerhouses of college basketball engaged in an instant classic back in December, a game which Kentucky won, 103-100. That was largely due to Malik Monk’s outside-shooting tour de force. Monk finished with 47 points, which is about 153 NBA points under the current conversion rate.

But December was so 2016, and because 2016 was a bad year, that game and its implications are irrelevant. There’s a new sheriff in Lexington. Monk might’ve rediscovered his stroke in the Sweet 16 (he scored 21 points on 8-of-17 shooting), but Fox is the head honcho now.

It’s inevitable. Kentucky is hanging its ninth banner in the rafters at Rupp Arena. If they don’t, I’ll set myself on fire.

De’Aaron Fox is going Michael Jordan mode

Fox isn’t the top NBA prospect, but there isn’t a player remaining in the tournament executing at a higher level. More than his 39 points on Friday night, Fox managed Friday’s highly-anticipated matchup to perfection.

Instead of pushing the pace and trying to outrun UCLA, the Wildcats often slung the ball around in order to drain clock before eventually finding Fox. The true freshman then forced the Bruins to pick their poison. Either trust that Ball and maybe another help defender is enough to slow down Fox’s mesmerizing drives to the basket, or watch him make the correct basketball play when one of his teammates is open for a split second.

Fox’s performance on Friday was Jordanesque. In fact, one of his late-game layups was actually reminiscent of a layup Jordan made in Game 4 of the 1993 NBA Finals.

Fox is showcasing a Jordan-level killer instinct, unlike Ball, who performed more like LeBron James circa the 2011 NBA Finals. Even though I never personally witnessed Jordan play, brand recognition and all the get-off-my-lawn folks of yesteryear have convinced me that Jordan > any collection of basketball talent.

These freshmen aren’t babies anymore

Every season is the same old song and dance for Calipari. Due to the influx of one-and-done freshmen, Kentucky experiences early bumps in the road due to a lack of chemistry. Last season, Kentucky never clicked the way it should have. This season, the opposite has taken place.

The Wildcats suffered a midseason lull after losing three of four games in late January and early February. Since then, they’ve reeled off 14 consecutive victories. And they’re doing so by playing disciplined and unselfish basketball.

There are so many layers to this play I thought I was cutting an onion while watching it. It also gives me an excuse for crying, which is what I usually do anyway on Friday evenings.

Fox made the obvious basketball play: Lob it up to your big man waiting alone by the baseline.

Edrice Adebayo, who goes by Bam, was about to deliver the bam, but due to his underwhelming launch, realized his alley-oop attempt was futile. Instead of panicking, he composed himself on the landing and slammed it home.

This also happened to be Bam’s first basket of the game. We’re talking about a player who averages 13 points per game making his first basket with three minutes remaining in a Sweet 16 games. And Kentucky was still winning by 11 points.

The ‘Cats care about defense

In a basketball world where 19-year-olds are handed millions of dollars before ever taking an NBA dribble, it’s a miracle Calipari has convinced a bunch of tweeners who talk in emojis that defense and rebounding matter. Say what you want about Calipari’s attitude. Accuse him of any NCAA violation you want. They’re probably all happening right now. He knows how to recruit and convince his players to play on both ends of the court.

What makes the Wildcats such a nightmare for opposing offenses is their athleticism at point guard. With basketball living on the perimeter nowadays, dexterous play defensively at guard is paramount. Kentucky’s defensive aptitude reached its plateau on Friday.

Although UCLA did shoot 52 percent from the floor, its offense wasn’t the same whirlwind of mastery we’re accustomed to witnessing.

That stems from Fox’s defensive performance on Ball. While it’s true that Ball is a pass-first point guard by nature, Fox clearly affected his rhythm. Even when Ball delivered beautiful, on-target passes, the Bruins rarely resembled the offense that led the nation in points per game during the regular season.

Although Kentucky is a lock to win it all, the Wildcats must square off against the Tar Heels, per an NCAA source. The game is slated for a 5:05 p.m. ET start and will be televised on CBS.

Edited by Quinn Pilkey

Rocky Topics: Can Tennessee win two games in the SEC Tournament?

Photo by Brad Blackwelder

On this week’s edition of Rocky Topics, Chase Carder and Gray LaRose debate whether Tennessee (16-15 8-10 SEC) can win two games against Georgia and Kentucky in the SEC Tournament

Carder: Tennessee will surely have its hands full against Georgia before even considering a matchup with Kentucky. A betting man would surely advise against it, but the Vols undoubtedly have a chance to advance to the conference semifinals. The comeback victory against Alabama in the season finale could re-energize a team in dire need of confidence boost. On the other hand, Georgia is coming off an 18-point loss at the hands of Arkansas. While the Vols will have their hands full with upperclassmen JJ Frazier and the returning Yante Maten, they’ll also be looking for revenge after the Bulldogs snuck away with a 76-75 win at Thompson Boiling back on Feb. 11. The optimist in me envisions another game that goes down to the wire, but with senior Roberts Hubbs leading his team to victory rather than Frazier. Now, onto Kentucky. Taking down the top team in the conference will be quite the task, but Tennessee proved back in January it can beat the Wildcats. Sure, one can argue Kentucky’s 83-58 victory in Rupp back on Valentine’s Day may have a bigger indication when it comes to a neutral site matchup. Keep in mind Kentucky has failed to win a game by more than 10 points since this beat down, while the Vols would be coming in fresh off back-to-back victories. If my prediction on the first game turns reality, that’s two straight close games where Tennessee came out victorious. That can do a lot for a team’s confidence.

LaRose: While I agree that Thursday’s matchup against the Bulldogs will be another nail-biter, I think Georgia will be the team advancing on to play Kentucky, and here’s why. The Vols struggled down the stretch, going 4-6 over the previous ten games, including that 76-75 loss at home against Georgia back in February. Hubbs could spark an underclassmen-ridden Tennessee team during a close rematch, but I think Frazier will show again that he is too much for the Vols’ young team to handle. Even if Tennessee can somehow pull out a victory Friday night, there is no way they are capable of beating a John Calipari-coached Kentucky team, which has found its stride as of late. The Wildcats have won eight straight games to close out the year including that impressive win over Tennessee. Coming off a close game against Georgia, I don’t think the Vols would have enough in the tank to compete with the Wildcats explosive freshman guards Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox. Tennessee is just too young and doesn’t have the experience to compete.

Carder: You’re right. The Vols have struggled down the stretch. Remember before that stretch when they were being discussed as an NCAA tournament team? Despite the struggles, it’s not as if that team disappeared. Sports are weird. Teams can go on cold or hot streaks at any time. In my view, Tennessee’s most recent victory combined with their encouraging performances from matchup on neutral site floors early in the year makes it hard to not view Tennessee as a low seed capable of advancing far. The tough road makes this a tougher pitch to sell, but the youthful Vols have already proven they can hang with the big boys on a neutral floor. Shembari Phillips is arguably Tennessee’s top perimeter defender has earned an increased role since the last meeting with Georgia, maybe he can take on the role of shutting down Frazier late this time around. Then, maybe the Vols can shoot better than 34 percent in a matchup against Kentucky away from Rupp. All of this isn’t to say they “will” win two games, but there’s a better chance of it happening compared to the public’s perception.

LaRose: Sports are weird, and teams get streaky. You’re right. This Tennessee team is easily talented enough despite their youth to make a run on a neutral floor. That being said, it’s not going to happen. The Vols just don’t have enough experience to close out high-pressure close games right now. If you remember, once Tennessee’s tournament hopes began to look hopeful after their four-game win streak, which included wins over then-No. 4 Kentucky, Auburn and Kansas State, the Vols proceeded to blow several second-half leads in crucial bubble games against Vanderbilt, Georgia, and Mississippi State. Tennessee is talented enough to compete if it can hit open looks and Phillips is able to lock down Frazier. The Vols will already have a disadvantage in the paint against both Kentucky and Georgia.  However, if the undersized frontcourt of Grant Williams and Lew Evans are physical enough to make it difficult for Maten and the rest of Georgia’s big men. Tennessee will keep it close. I just don’t see Tennessee having that go-to shooter late in the game to leave Nashville with a victory.

Edited by Quinn Pilkey

Featured image by Brad Blackwelder

Around the SEC: Men’s basketball weekly recap

Photo by Brad Blackwelder

Week of Feb. 27 – March 5

Volunteers split games with LSU and Alabama

Tennessee continued its season-long trend of showing up for some games and not for others. The Vols dropped an important game against LSU in Baton Rouge earlier in the week, 92-82. Grant Williams came up big with 16 points and 14 rebounds. This loss extended Tennessee’s losing streak to three games, but the streak was severed later in the week. The Vols rallied late on Senior night to beat Alabama 59-54. Williams again came up big with 16 points and 10 rebounds. This game was a tale of two halves. Alabama was 7-9 from deep in the first half but the Volunteer’s defense only allowed 18 total points in the second.

Vanderbilt stays too hot to handle in victory over Florida

The Commodores have now won four of their last five after their win against the Gators. Vanderbilt improved to 10-8 in the SEC with the 73-71 win and the Gators dropped to 14-4. Commodore forward Luke Kornet led all scores with 24 points and also had six rebounds and two blocks. The Commodores have put together an impressive resume for the NCAA tournament. They are considered a bubble team and have a realistic chance for an at-large bid.

Kentucky keeps rolling down the stretch

The Wildcats are on an eight-game win streak after wins over Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. The No. 9 Wildcats are dominating the SEC and are peaking at exactly the right time for tournament play. Malik Monk was the leading scorer for Kentucky with 27 points in the win over the Commodores, and De’Aaron Fox was the leading scorer with 19 against the Aggies. With the win over Texas A&M, the Wildcats clinched the SEC regular season title. Kentucky is projected to win the SEC tournament and has a great shot to win the NCAA tournament.

All results

Alabama Crimson Tide – W 70-55 vs Ole Miss, L 59-54 at Tennessee

Arkansas Razorbacks – L 78-65 at Florida, W 85-67 vs Georgia

Auburn Tigers – L 79-78 at Georgia, W 89-78 vs Missouri

Florida Gators – W 78-65 vs Arkansas, L 73-71 at Vanderbilt

Georgia Bulldogs – W 79-78 vs Auburn, L 85-67 at Arkansas

Kentucky Wildcats – W 73-67 vs Vanderbilt, W 71-63 at Texas A&M

LSU Tigers – W 92-82 vs Tennessee, L 88-76 at Mississippi State

Mississippi State Bulldogs – L 63-57 at South Carolina, W 88-76 vs LSU

Missouri Tigers – L 60-43 vs Texas A&M, L 89-78 at Auburn

Ole Miss Rebels – L 70-55 at Alabama, W 75-70 vs South Carolina

South Carolina Gamecocks – W 63-57 vs Mississippi State, L 75-70 at Ole Miss

Tennessee Volunteers – L 92-82 at LSU, W 59-54 vs Alabama

Texas A&M Aggies – W 60-43 at Missouri, L 71-63 vs Kentucky

Vanderbilt Commodores – L 73-67 at Kentucky, W 73-71 vs Florida

Edited by Quinn Pilkey

Featured image by Brad Blackwelder