For this season’s game of the year, Saturday night was far from a disappointment.
The fifth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats played host to the top-ranked Tennessee Volunteers at Rupp Arena. The two clashed back and forth early, with Kentucky heading into halftime with a 37-31 edge. In the second half, the Wildcats opened up the action with a 14-0 scoring burst and looked to be on their way to blowing out the Volunteers.
However, Tennessee had a run of their own by scoring 13 unanswered. The two top-five teams shoved back and forth until the buzzer sounded, with Kentucky coming on top by a score of 86-69.
PJ Washington Makes His Case
The headline of Saturday night’s game was the matchup between Kentucky sophomore PJ Washington and Tennessee junior Grant Williams. The two are neck-and-neck in the Southeastern Conference’s Player of the Year race, though most would probably lean towards Williams.
After Tuesday’s controversial loss to LSU, adding this matchup only poured more fuel on Washington’s fire. The second-year star come out with a mission, scoring 13 points in the first half that included the team’s first seven of the game.
In the second half, Washington added ten points to total 23 for the game. However, his performance arguably solidified his place as the conference’s best player while also taking the reigns of his team and leading the Wildcats’ to a signature victory.
Defense Continues to Dominate
Coming into the game, it was Tennessee’s second-ranked defense against shots inside the arc that was receiving most of the attention. Not many were acknowledging Kentucky’s defense letting up an average of just 58 points over their last seven games.
With Tennessee having big, strong guards and an overall veteran roster, the Volunteers are also known for their impact on the glass.
However, behind a collective effort, the Wildcats landed the first punch and didn’t let up. Kentucky won the first half rebounding battle, 17-11, and finished the game by a margin of 39-26. The Wildcats also held Tennessee to well below their average of 85 PPG.
1 Seed Still Alive
After losing at home to LSU, Kentucky’s 1-seed hopes were on life support. At 20-4 with Virginia, Duke, Tennessee and Gonzaga having sizable leads for 1-seeds in the Big Dance, Kentucky had to win this game to keep their hopes alive to be the top seed in a region.
The Wildcats did just that while also damaging the Vols’ chances of getting a 1-seed as well. With Gonzaga playing such an easy schedule and unlikely to lose before Selection Sunday, Kentucky’s best hope at getting a top seed is probably by passing the Vols.
Tennessee still gets a crack at Kentucky in Knoxville, but this win absolutely makes this a close race heading down the stretch of the regular season. It may very well come down to who wins the SEC Tournament that gets that final 1 seed.
Keldon Johnson Catches Fire
For a player who is regarded as Kentucky’s top-prospect, Keldon Johnson has recently hit a minor slump in recent weeks. However, since the team has been winning, his struggles have mostly floated under the radar. On Tuesday, despite the Wildcats losing to LSU, Johnson had 16 points on 5-10 shooting. Most importantly, he took nine free throws to show how aggressive the young star was.
On Saturday, Johnson followed up his aggressive play with 13 first-half points. Nine of those 13 came in less than two minutes when Johnson suddenly caught fire from behind the arc. His timely shot making propelled Kentucky in sustaining their lead into the half.
Johnson finished the game with 19 points for one of his better performances this season.
Calipari Does it Again
Tuesday’s loss to LSU was controversial and frustrating for a Kentucky Wildcats team that was looking to assert themselves atop the SEC standings. While the younger Wildcats could have easily came out selfish and trying to win on their own, head coach John Calipari had his team prepared for their biggest game of the season. Calipari out-mastered Rick Barnes in the conference’s most prolific matchup to date.
One could say this is Calipari’s most outstanding coaching job since the program’s national title run in 2012. While there is much basketball left to be played, Saturday’s win over the Volunteers is as big of a statement Kentucky could make this season.
Up next for the Wildcats (21-4) is a road trip to Missouri (12-12) on Tuesday night, as they take on the Tigers at 9 pm EST.