LEXINGTON — The Kentucky Wildcats made a statement Saturday, Feb. 18 as it earned a 66-54 win over the No. 10 ranked Tennessee Volunteers in a game it never trailed to pick up its third quad win of the season and help pad its NCAA Tournament resume.
With the victory, Kentucky completed a regular season sweep of the Vols for the first time since Rick Barnes became Tennessee’s head coach ahead of the 2015-16 season. The Cats also improved to 18-9 overall on the season, 9-5 in SEC play and 3-7 against Quad 1 ranked foes. Tennessee dropped to 20-7 overall and are now also 9-5 in SEC play, with UK owning the tiebreaker between the two teams for SEC Tournament seeding purposes.
“I give credit to Tennessee. They fight,” Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe said postgame. “They did everything they could. They have a good team, but my teammates, we just came in and said we’re not losing today. We are not losing.’ We are gonna do everything.”
Kentucky again was shorthanded Saturday as point guard Sahvir Wheeler (ankle) missed his fourth straight game, while shooting guard CJ Fredrick (ribs) missed his third straight. Tennessee was also down two players as Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips sat due to injury. Tennessee was also down two players as Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips sat due to injury.
During halftime, Kentucky honored the 1996 and 1998 national championship teams and the 1997 national runner-ups. Among those to attend the ceremony were 1998 head coach Tubby Smith and national championship-winning players Derek Anderson, Anthony Epps, Nazr Mohammed, Jeff Sheppard and Wayne Turner.
“Here being celebrated and recognized is quite an honor,” Smith said in a press conference before Saturday’s game. “It’s also a labor of love because we love the game. We love people.
“Just being here today being a part of this is remarkable. We couldn’t be more grateful and thankful for the Big Blue Nation and what they’ve meant to us and to my family.”
On the floor, the current Wildcats were led in scoring Saturday by Cason Wallace and Tshiebwe who each scored 16 points. The duo was joined in double figures by Chris Livingston (12) and Jacob Toppin (11).
Livingston added 10 rebounds to record his first career double-double.
Santiago Vescovi led the Vols with 17 points all of which came in the second half. Jahmai Mashack (16) joined Vescovi in double figures.
Kentucky opened the game on a 19-10 run as it held the Vols 4-for-15 shooting through the game’s first 13 minutes, forced Vols standout guard Zakai Zeigler into early foul trouble and got seven early points, including a three from Livingston.
The Wildcats would push its lead to 15 with 5:26 left in the opening half after a Tshiebwe dunk in which he drew a foul and converted a three point play and a three from Toppin and went onto finish the last five and a half minutes of the half on a 14-7 run to take a 20-point 39-19 lead into halftime.
UK held Tennessee a 7-for-27 shooting clip from the field in the opening half, a 1-for-13 mark from three and out-rebounded the Vols 22-14 in what was the Wildcats’ most dominant first half of the season so far.
“I didn’t know the halftime lead because I didn’t look at the clock or the scoreboard until I got it in at halftime,” Calipari said. “What I liked was how we defended and how we rebounded. We out-rebounded them by eight. Understand in the country, they’re (Tennessee) like the best there, plus eight rebounding and we ended up being plus eight in the first half.”
The second half got off to a sloppy start for the Cats as it committed turnovers on each of its first three possessions while the Vols went on a 7-0 run, making it a 39-26 game and forcing Calipari to call timeout with 18:37 to play. Tennessee would trim the lead to 10 after a Vescovi three with 13:38 to play and a three from Mashack made it a nine point game with 8:39 left.
UK would push its lead back to 10 over the next six minutes, making it a 62-52 game heading into the final media timeout with 2:50 to play. The Cats went onto close the game on a 4-2 run to finish of the sweep of the Vols.
“We played hard the second half, but when you’re coming back, emotion starts to kick in and you still got to make smart plays,” Barnes said. “We just had too many plays in the second half and they gave us some chances. They opened the door for us ... but every time we had a chance and had it come down we’d miss some rim shots.”
Despite shooting an improved 48.4% from the field in the second half, Tennessee shot just 4-for-14 from the free throw line on the afternoon, including a 0-for-6 clip in the second half which helped Kentucky hold off the comeback attempt.
Kentucky will be back on the road Wednesday in Gainesville, where it will look for a regular season sweep of the Florida Gators and fourth Quad 1 win. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
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