Faced with the prospect of going 1-7 on the road this season in the SEC and being forced to play four straight days in the SEC Tournament, the Kentucky Wildcats held on to pull out a huge, low-scoring win against the Tennessee Volunteers. Kentucky came back from 10 down in the first half and 7 down at the half to win the game, and they did it in spite of a loathsome first half that was almost as horrible to watch (to a Wildcat fan, at least) as the Saw series. I had to turn my head away many times in the first half, but not in the second.
The Tennessee Volunteers played a very tough, physical defensive game, but as been their wont all year, they had difficulty scoring, primarily because Scotty Hopson just wasn't much good today for long stretches. Hopson did score a bunch from the free throw line in the second half and single-handedly fouled out two of Kentucky's best players, DeAndre Liggins and Doron Lamb, and very nearly put Darius Miller on the bench with five as well. But the Vols just struggled offensively despite a major contribution from Tobias Harris, and in the end, they just couldn't put enough points on the board.
Notwithstanding the fact that this was the season regular-season sweep against our most ancient SEC rival, this game was pregnant with upside for Kentucky, but interestingly, had very little downside. Even if Kentucky had lost this game and left the SEC tournament early, they still likely would have been a five seed in the tournament. This win, plus getting to the SEC final game, gives the 'Cats a decent shot at a four seed, which seemed like a very long shot indeed just three games ago when Kentucky lost a close game on the road to the Arkansas Razorbacks.Superlatives:
- Brandon Knight was huge in the second half, and he almost single-handedly did the thing that UK could not seem to do in the first -- score. Knight finished with 19 tough points, and every one of them earned with blood and sweat against some of the toughest on-ball defense I have seen in a long time from Tennessee guard Melvin Goins. Game ball.
- DeAndre Liggins may have fouled out, but he led the team in the first half by scoring a couple of huge dunks, made a jumper, and got all up in Scotty Hopson's head as well as his jersey. If Knight had not been so superior, the game ball would have gone to Liggins.
- Doron Lamb was up to his old tricks, making key shots and defending pretty well. Lamb is maturing, and he is one of the most dangerous players in a given game that Kentucky has. Tonight, he was merely timely, but I love his game.
- Terrence Jones once again struggled shooting the ball. The biggest reason for this is that he is too left-handed, and everyone in college basketball knows it. His shots get challenged and he puts them up anyway. Still, he had 12 big rebounds, six of them offensive. He also made key free throws down the stretch.
- Josh Harrellson had a poor first half, but played much tougher in the second half, making some big plays.
- Darius Miller did a spectacular job in the second half. He did a good job on the boards, did a fine job when he guarded Hopson, and made huge shots and free throws. A very good game from Miller was a big reason we won this game.
- Eloy Vargas did a good job in his seven minutes. He blocked a shot, scored a basket and got an offensive rebound. He also got fouled and got to the line. Paraphrasing Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, "Glenn have hope for you!"
- Jon Hood was forced into the rotation, and did fine, although he failed to impact the box score.
This was a huge, possibly season-changing win for the Wildcats. The NCAA selection committee will see this game an important one when it comes to seeding, and if Kentucky can take care of business in the SEC tournament and at least get to the final, I really do think Kentucky will be rewarded with a four seed. That would be a big help for UK to get past the first weekend in the tournament.
I can't tell you how pleased I am to see this young team get the road monkey off their backs, and in the toughest possible environment. I really loved the toughness this young team showed against an extremely physical Tennessee team, particularly in the second half. Calipari did a terrific job coaching this game, managing foul trouble, and called an out of bounds play that resulted in three scores, two of them layups by Darius Miller.
Big win for the Wildcats, bubble trouble for the Vols. Tennessee now needs at least one win in the SEC to feel reasonably secure in their post-season hopes, and it might even take two. All Kentucky can do now is improve their seed line.