The Kentucky Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers had a classic battle in Nashville, but it was the Vols who came away with an 82-78 win.
It was hard fought, physical, fan lovin’ game that started from the moment the sun came up this morning. You could feel it in the air. #BBNashville was stormed with blue on every sidewalk and every piece of pavement in Music City.
Tennessee, coming off their best regular season in decades, and very arguably of all-time, had the confidence for the third matchup of Kentucky-Tennessee this season.
The whole first half, it was back and forth, trading blow for blow. Early foul trouble led to PJ Washington only playing six minutes. Early scoring was spread out amongst the team, as four Wildcats had at least 5 points.
On the orange side, it was as if they couldn’t miss any shot behind the perimeter. The Volunteers shot 7-9 (78%) from the arc, and Kentucky did everything they could to keep it close. The game stayed within two points for the first half, as it concluded to a halftime score of 36-34, with the Cats trailing.
After the halftime break, Washington returned immediately scored. He was the factor that was taken away in the first half. Following the bucket was a huge block on the other end, gaining the momentum for Kentucky. Washington went on to finish with 16 points in 20 minutes.
After a 35-minute stretch of lead change after lead change, Kentucky broke away with an 8-point lead with shortly under three minutes to play. With what seemed to be a forceful lead, it was quickly learned that it was not. Tennessee came rolling back by being carried by SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams.
Tennessee cut it to three with 2:32 to go. At this point, the arena was shaking. Two crazy skilled offenses going toe to toe to make the SEC Championship would end up being a heartbreaker for one team.
Williams woulds hit a corner three to take the lead 75-74. On the next play, Kentucky would go to their “upperclassmen,” as Washington, demanding the ball in the post, fought his way through two Tennessee defenders for a viscous slam.
The Cats held a 76-75 lead with 38.5 seconds to play, but a Lamonte Turner thee-ball gave the Vols the lead for good. After a miss by Kentucky and subsequent fould, Tennessee added two free throws to build a 80-76 lead.
Ashton Hagans would then rush to go coast to coast for an easy finger roll, getting it back within two at 80-78. Kentucky, forced to foul, put Jordan Bone on the line for two more free throws, which he hit, making it 82-78, which would be the final score.
After the game, head coach John Calipari and select players met with the media. Here is a recap of what they had to say.
THE MODERATOR: We are ready to begin with Kentucky. We will take some opening thoughts on the game from Coach Calipari.
JOHN CALIPARI: Hats off to Tennessee. Hard-fought game. We had our chances. We had the lead late. These guys will tell you, we usually don’t give up those kind of games. Even though we’re young, we still usually finish them off.
A couple things go against you. They took advantage, which they’d done all year. They win the game. It’s a hard-fought game for both of us.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for P.J. or Keldon.
Q. P.J., what was going through your heads walking from the court back to the locker room?
P.J. WASHINGTON: We play next weekend, so we’re fine. We knew it was a hard-fought game. Both teams fought really well. Down the stretch we made some mistakes. They capitalized on us.
We play next weekend, we’re going to get it right.
Q. P.J., you’ve been in this situation before. What was your message as one of the veteran leaders after the game?
P.J. WASHINGTON: Just told them to keep their heads up, keep fighting. We still have a bigger tournament and it’s more important. We got to come out, be focused, be ready to play, whoever we play.
Q. Keldon, your thoughts on the game?
KELDON JOHNSON: We played hard. We fought. We competed out there. We just came up short. I mean, that’s all it was.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll excuse the student-athletes and continue with questions for Coach Calipari.
Q. I think in the last 2:44, they outscored you 18 to 7. What was the difference?
JOHN CALIPARI: I don’t know. I’ll have to watch the tape. There’s a lot of stuff that was going on, a lot of plays, lot of calls. Just got to watch the tape. I mean, we’re not one of those teams that usually does it. All we had to do was rebound that last ball. If we rebound the last ball, the game is different. We just didn’t bring it in.
We had to change how we played because they were killing us in pick’n rolls. We started switching, let their guards try to beat our bigs, we’ll play their bigs with our guards. That helped us. That’s how we got a lead because we couldn’t really guard them.
Offensively we just said we’re going middle pick’n roll. That’s all we ran for eight minutes. Ashton probably got wore out because we were trying to get out of the gym. Somebody stepped out of bounds, I don’t know if it was our guy or their guy, in front of the bench. Somebody stepped out. Somebody had two legs out. I don’t know who it was. Might have been my guy. I think he was just so tired, he nonchalant throws the ball, it gets scrambled up.
We went middle pick’n roll, he did a great job. Got layups, lobs, shots, everything we wanted.
Q. Are you even worried at all of how these guys are going to bounce back?
JOHN CALIPARI: No. The hard thing about this tournament, if we had won the game, my comment to my team now is, If you’re going to make me coach, you’re going to play in this finals, we’re winning it. We’re not going to lose and have to play, then have to play Thursday.
Now we’re done. We’ll drive home and get ready for the tournament. I believe we’ll be in, do you think so?
Q. Good chance.
JOHN CALIPARI: I think we’ll be in. I don’t even want to say anything. I could tell you what our bracket will look like if you’d like to know. I’m just kidding (laughter).
Q. You’ve talked in the past about thinking they should use the S-curve for seeding in the NCAA tournament. How does that weigh this year with a regional in Louisville?
JOHN CALIPARI: The reason I say the S-curve is because all the ‘why did you do this’, if we’re the number 4-1, why wouldn’t you play the 1-2. Whatever.
Everybody charters. Doesn’t matter where you’re playing. I believe you should do this. Well, this team has 11 teams from their league in the NCAA tournament. So they got 11 teams in. You’re going to give them another advantage? Just do the S-curve, first 16 teams. They don’t.
That’s when you say that the power in this one, this is death row, this one is a little bit easier. Then when you’re in the easy one, you’re happy. Seems like those teams are always happy. If you’re in the tough one, you’re always upset.
Just do the S-curve, it’s easy. But they have a reason why they don’t to do it. I don’t agree with it. But I’m not in the room doing it.
Q. Normally your team shoots more free throws than the other team. Tennessee shot 23 in the second half. What was it they were doing or what you weren’t doing?
JOHN CALIPARI: I don’t know. I have to watch the tape.
Q. You obviously know Tennessee very well after three games.
JOHN CALIPARI: Six games in two years. They’re all wars. I don’t know why I recommended that Rick take this job. If I’d have known he was doing this to us, I would have said, Stay at Texas, don’t even come up here.
Q. Do you think Tennessee will be a tough team to prepare for in the NCAA tournament, teams that haven’t played them?
JOHN CALIPARI: Yes. They don’t beat themselves, they don’t turn it over, they have a post game, they can shoot threes. In a normal game we get to the free-throw line way more than the other team. I’ll have to watch the tape why this happened.
I’m telling you, they played well. With an eight-point lead, we should win that game. They said, You’re not winning the game, we’re not giving up, we’re not stopping. We have the ball, we get a tip-in, they miss a shot. We miss the rebound, they score on that one. Changes the end of the game.
You got to give them credit. Rick did a great job. He’s continued to do a great job.
Q. This is about the third or fourth time in the last month that P.J. has picked up two fouls really early.
JOHN CALIPARI: Bunch of games. Bunch of games. Like six games.
Q. Is that something that worries you going into the tournament?
JOHN CALIPARI: No, no. I’m not worried about it, no.
Q. To be clear, do you think your team should be a No. 1 seed?
JOHN CALIPARI: I don’t know. I mean, there’s a bunch of teams that would say it. I’d say we’re pretty good. It’s not if we’re a 1 or 2. It’s who is the other team? I have an idea who it will be.
If you’re telling me we’re the No. 1 two seed, we should play the lowest of the 1 seeds. That’s all I’m saying. If you’re saying we’re the second, we should play the third of the 1 seeds. Maybe it won’t happen that way. We’ll see.
But it’s fine. I say that, and before you even look at that team, you have to play three games. Every one of them are hard. There’s some teams right now that they want to say mid-majors. You don’t want to be playing them. It happened last year.
Q. How would you sum up the SEC this year, how far it’s come over the last few years?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, when I used to say us getting seven, eight teams in the NCAA tournament, people used to laugh at me. We were getting two and three. Two, I think, a couple times maybe.
But the league top to bottom, I mean, I want you to think about it. Vandy loses their best player. They wouldn’t have been 0-18, not with that kid. How many would they have won? I don’t know. They would have been more confident, got it going.
Missouri loses their best player. You think about what I’m saying. Two teams. Florida doing what they did, and they had one of their big guys out. So from there, whether it was Mississippi, the job they did, Mississippi State, the job Ben did, top to bottom, there were no easy games in this league. Every game was a war.
That’s why I would expect in the NCAA tournament that there will be some teams in this league that are going to make a good run. I hope we’re one of them. I don’t know. But my feel is that’s what will happen.
Q. You had some trees down low. How good is Grant Williams?JOHN CALIPARI: No, he’s good. He’s tough. He’s a competitor. I mean, that three in the corner, those free throws. If he doesn’t make every free throw, every one, they kept giving them to him, he made every one. Then make that three. They don’t win. They don’t win the game.
It’s not just physical toughness, it’s mental toughness. He’s one of those guys. He’s special.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you.