The Kentucky Wildcats’ March Madness resume got a whole lot better on Saturday afternoon after they beat the 10th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers 66-54 at Rupp Arena.
Despite knocking off Alabama, the nation’s top-ranked team on Wednesday night in Knoxville, Tennessee never had a chance in Saturday’s revenge game after losing to the ‘Cats in January. With the win, Kentucky has now pulled off its first regular-season sweep of the Vols since the 2011-12 season.
With Saturday’s Quad 1 win, Kentucky is now back on track to make the NCAA Tournament and improves its potential seed for the upcoming SEC Tournament in Nashville. The Wildcats are now 18-9 overall and 9-5 in conference play with four games remaining - road games at Florida and Arkansas and home contests with Auburn and Vanderbilt.
The freshmen duo of Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston led the way against the Vols, who struggled to score much of the game against an outstanding Kentucky defense. Tennessee mounted a big rally in the second half, avoiding turnovers and finally getting hot from the three-point stripe, but still came up short in the comeback effort.
The big question now is can the ‘Cats run the table and win out heading into the conference tournament?
Here are the four things you should know from Saturday’s victory.
Dominant first-half lifts ‘Cats to victory
Kentucky broke its pattern of slow starts by jumping on Tennessee early and taking a 10-2 lead on a Cason Wallace basket through the game’s first eight minutes. The Wildcats would then go on two significant runs in the half - the first was a 14-2 run that gave the Wildcats a 27-12 lead and the other was an 8-0 run late in the half to put the Wildcats up by 20 points at the break (39-19). Kentucky shot 42.9 percent from the field in the opening half and connected on 12-of-13 free throws.
Kentucky's defense steps up in must-win game
The Kentucky defense played with a keen sense of urgency, applying ball pressure, guarding ball screens, and trapping to make things tough for the Vols. Tennessee got off to a horrible start, shooting 1-for-11 from the field, and had just 10 points through the opening 14 minutes of the half. Tennessee finished the half with just seven field goals and shot 25.9 percent from the floor that included 1-for-13 from three-point range. The Vols shot the ball much better in the second half and cut the lead to eight before falling short in a losing effort.
UK freshmen star on the big stage
Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston met the challenge on Saturday and played lights out against the Vols. In addition to running the offense, Wallace was cool under pressure and seemed to always answer the call when UK needed a basket. Livingston is not only a scoring threat, but his hustle and defensive effort were in top form on Saturday, and he also emerged as a tough rebounder with 10 boards in a physical game. His only weakness was from the foul line where he struggled in the second half. Offensively, Wallace had 12 points in the first half, followed by Livingston and Oscar Tshiebwe with nine each.
Fredrick, Wheeler injures loom large in final weeks
Once again, CJ Fredrick (ribs) and Sahvir Wheeler (ankle) missed Saturday’s game which put more pressure on Wallace to stay on the floor. The good news is that the bench played well in spurts as freshman guard Adou Thiero showed off his heart and athleticism and post players Daimion Collins and Lance Ware also meet the challenge. While Wheeler gives the ‘Cats more depth at the point guard spot, the return of Fredrick, one of the team’s top three-point threats, will be essential to make a run over the final month of the season. Both Fredrick and Wheeler are still listed as day-to-day.
The Wildcats return to action on Wednesday at Florida.