With 13:47 left in the game between top-ranked Tennessee and No. 5 Kentucky on Saturday in Lexington, ESPN color commentator Jay Bilas said these simple words that probably felt like a shot in the arm to many members of the Big Blue Nation.
“Tennessee is a beaten team,” he said as the Cats roared out to a 58-36 lead on the back of a 21-5 run at the point to run the Vols out of the building, 86-69 (nice).
He wasn’t kidding.
Even with a 13-0 run that took about 2:20 of game time in the middle of the second half to put Kentucky fans closer to the edge of their seats, it didn’t even come close to mattering in the end.
Why? Because Kentucky kicked Tennessee’s [redacted] all night long.
PJ Washington looked like a first-round pick come June with a dominating 23-point, five-rebound, two-block, two-steal performance where he treated SEC Player of the Year candidates Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams like little brothers.
Tyler Herro shot 3-of-11 on the night, but finished with 15 points and a career-high 13 rebounds (!) to show that he’s again more than just a shooter.
Keldon Johnson scored 11 points in a matter of about 2:13 of game time during the first half on his way to a 19-point night.
Ashton Hagans has struggled as of late, but he had nine points and seven assists with just a single turnover and two steals.
Saturday night was a total team effort from the Cats and they simply punked the top-ranked Vols. Let’s dive into the night that was at Rupp Arena on Saturday.
Right now, PJ Washington is the SEC Player of the Year
In the last eight games (7-1), PJ Washington is averaging 21 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while shooting 54.4 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range. He’s also shooting 71.1 percent from the line on 5.6 attempts per contest and made 14 of his 23 total triples on the season in that same span.
Name a better player in the SEC right now. You can’t honestly.
He scored Kentucky’s first seven points of the night against the Vols and what made Washington’s bully-like showing almost comical was that it was simply one move he was using to beat their post defenders.
If you let Washington establish post positioning, dribble into the painted area and use those long arms to get off a hook over that left shoulder, start heading back up the floor because that’s an easy deuce for him.
It didn’t matter if it was Schofield, Williams or any other Vol guarding Washington, he was unguardable on Saturday night.
If you were thinking, “Why didn’t Rick Barnes send a double at PJ,” well, they did ... and it still didn’t matter.
Oh, also ... guess what Kentucky did on the first possession of the second half? If you guessed “go to Washington on a post-up and he’ll score over the left shoulder”, you win a prize that doesn’t actually exist.
“Look at that, it’s just so simple to get the ball inside to PJ Washington,” Bilas said after Washington’s bucket here. He’s not wrong.
Reid Travis had a quiet 11 and 8 but a stellar second half
I’m sure plenty of people thought Reid Travis had a quiet night against the Vols, but it wasn’t so much about his offensive production. He did an excellent job down low defensively using his size and strength to frustrate guys.
He’s also evolved into ... a shot blocker? That’s different.
A play that probably went unnoticed in the grand scheme of things was his rebound/assist combo on the Tyler Herro make from the left corner that sent Rupp into a frenzy during that big second-half push.
Losing to LSU may have been the best thing for Kentucky moving forward
Sure, nobody in the BBN ever wants Kentucky to lose a game, but losing earlier in the week (albeit, in controversial fashion) pissed Kentucky off and it showed on Saturday. It was a physical contest between two great teams and the Cats drilled the Vols in every aspect of the game.
A loss like the LSU one helped refocused Kentucky and got them back on track. That’s crucial considering they still games with LSU, Auburn, Ole Miss and Tennessee still to go before the SEC Tournament.
Losses can be good sometimes and Kentucky made sure the LSU game was quickly forgotten after Saturday. That’s their best performance all season. It’s not the most “important” performance (because the UNC game changed the season’s trajectory before Christmas), but it was their best.
Everyone found ways to contribute and their best player was the best player on the floor yet again. There’s still six regular season games, but if Kentucky plays like that consistently, good luck keeping them off the 1-line come Selection Sunday.