Cold shooting and foul trouble proved to be a lethal combination as Kentucky fell to rival Tennessee 69-62 in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament on Saturday afternoon in Tampa.
With the loss, Kentucky falls to 26-7 and is now off the No. 1 seed line as Coach John Calipari and the Wildcats will have to wait and see where it lands in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee jumped on the Cats early with back-to-back three pointers to take a 10-4 lead as Kentucky struggled offensively, making sloppy turnovers and taking bad shots in the half-court offense as the Vols took an 11 point lead at halftime at 33-22.
A TyTy Washington basket cut the lead to eight with 8:05 remaining in the game as the Wildcats tried to mount a comeback late. But a quick score by Tennessee and a steal and run out dunk pushed the lead back to 55-43. A Sahvir Wheeler bucket would cut the lead to 55-49 but the Vols were too much to handle down the stretch.
Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky’s leading scorer, finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds, despite missing much of the first half with two fouls. He eventually fouled out with 3:37 left in the game with Kentucky trailing 58-49.
The Cats made one final run over the final two minutes as Washington hit two free throws with 1:31 left in the game to cut the lead to three at 65-62. Tennessee would then get a big offensive rebound on its next possession that resulted in a made free throw as the Vols led 66-62. With 37.4 second left, Kellan Grady missed a three and the Vols hit two free throws to go up 68-62 and eventually seal the victory.
In the end, the Vols were the better team after going 2-1 against Kentucky this season, winning in Knoxville and now playing for the SEC title on Sunday against Texas A&M.
Another slow start
Slows starts have been a curse for Kentucky all season and the Wildcats went cold again from the field to score a season low 22 first-half points.
The offense produced just six points over the game’s first seven and half minutes before a jumper by Sahvir Wheeler cut the Tennessee lead to 15-8 at the 12:32 mark. The Wildcats shot just 27.6% from the field in the first half and were 0/8 from the three-point arc.
Kentucky isn’t going to last long in the Big Dance if these slow starts keep up.
Wildcats go cold from the field
Considered one of the best shooting teams in the John Calipari era, the Wildcats went cold from three-point range as the Wildcats hit just two three pointers in the loss. Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz, the team’s two best perimeter shooters, could not find the mark against the Vols as the offense looked out of sync and failed to find any offensive rhythm.
Keion Brooks was the lone bright spot as the 6-foot-7 forward provided a much-needed offensive spark, getting to the basket and keeping the Wildcats in the game. Brooks hit Kentucky’s first three-pointer with 6:54 left in the game.
Big swings hurt Kentucky
Oscar Tshiebwe, the SEC Player of the Year, played the first six minutes without a rebound, despite leading the nation in that category all season. He also picked up two quick fouls and spent the final 12:32 of the first half on the bench.
Trailing 23-18 at the 5:53 mark, TyTy Washington scored and was fouled to give the Wildcats an opportunity to pull within two on a made free throw. However, the official called the foul before the shot and Washington missed the front end of a one-and-one as the Volunteers then went on a 10-2 run to close the half and take a 33-22 halftime advantage.
Both situations proved to be instrumental in Tennessee’s ability to push ahead.
Missed opportunity for No. 1 seed
With No. 1 seed Auburn out of the tournament and upstart Texas A&M upsetting Arkansas earlier in the day, a win over Tennessee would have set up an SEC final against the Aggies that may have created a clear path to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, the Wildcats will keep its fingers crossed for a No. 2 seed as the selection committee completes it work on Sunday afternoon.