For Hopson, a player who has struggled so much with both assertiveness and consistency, I feared it was a death sentence in the game's opening minute. Kentucky is the most physically imposing team in the SEC, and Cousins could've taken Hopson out of the game immediately.
But in the game's final minute, Hopson's confidence was apparently still intact. Though 0-5 from beyond the arc on the night, he'd still found a way to score a dozen points and grab four rebounds. And then on the game's most important possession, with Tennessee leading 67-65 with 40 seconds to play and 6 seconds on the shot clock, Hopson fired a three without hesitation...and ended the game.
Between those two possessions were two incredible runs: an 18-0 spurt by the Vols at the start of the game, and a 30-11 run by Kentucky from the 14:00 mark of the second half until a DeMarcus Cousins' jam with 2:13 to play that finally tied the score. The Vols ran out in front, and perhaps Kentucky used up everything they had to catch them. But in the final two minutes once the game was tied, the Vols made every play they had to, and outscored the Cats 9-0 to the finish. The Vols stood up and made Kentucky take notice, and took home a 74-65 win. It was big for the rivalry, and it was big for the season - you can now officially put Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament and lock the doors behind them, and with wins over Kansas and Kentucky, plus a one point loss to Purdue, you can still entertain the idea of moving up in the bracket. All in all, a huge day in Knoxville.
It was a game of several runs and several storylines:
Three Point Shooting
If Kentucky finds anyone - anyone - who can knock down a three with any consistency, who beats them?
They went 1 for 11 in the first half today, and 1 for 11 in the second half. That makes the Cats 27 of 128 (21.1%) in their last seven games, having missed more than 100 threes in that span. If there's a blueprint on beating a 27-2 team with loads of NBA talent, it involves letting them take their chances from beyond the arc.
Meanwhile, Tennessee was only 6 of 25 from beyond the arc, but every single one we hit was huge. J.P. Prince hit two, his first one giving the Vols their first points. Bobby Maze hit one right on the heels of that one to give momentum to the building 18-0 run. And Skylar McBee buried one late in that run to push Tennessee's lead to a dozen and set the house on fire.
And obviously, there was no bigger shot than Hopson's. The Vols don't beat Florida at home without him hitting the game winner. And the Vols don't beat Kansas without several key three pointers from a variety of guys. For Tennessee to beat the good teams they'll face in March, they don't have to be on fire from beyond the arc...but they need to make enough to keep things going.
The Vols also made it their business, early and often, to take chances beyond the arc. Several Vols fired at will in the first five minutes, and the Vols took 25 in the game. And for the second straight game against Kentucky, Wayne Chism lived beyond the arc: in two contests vs. the Cats, Chism has taken 15 three pointers. He went 0-7 today, but whether it's Chism's health or Kentucky's post presence or both, the Vols have been very intentional in getting him out of the paint more often against the Cats.
The Inevitable UK Run
Cameron Tatum's three put the Vols up 54-35 with 14:00 to play. It takes 40 minutes to beat Kentucky, no matter how well you play for the first 26. And the Vols spent the next 12 figuring that out.
As the Cats are basically an NBA D-League team already, they made a run like every professional team does. And if great players play great in great moments...then we saw today with our own eyes that John Wall is, in fact, a great player.
Four years ago, Kentucky came to Knoxville to play Bruce Pearl's first team, another overachieving group that had become a great story. The Vols led by as many as 14 in the first half and by 7 at halftime, but in the final twenty minutes, Kentucky gave the ball to Rajon Rondo, and Rondo went to the hole. Repeatedly. He finished with 16 points - 12 in the second half - and 8 assists. He brought the Cats back, gave them the lead, and Kentucky held on for a two point win.
So today, when John Wall started coming downcourt at speeds that, truly, have to be seen in person to be believed, and he got in the lane and then either made a play or got the whistle, it looked like the exact same story playing all over again. He made three straight plays in the lane at the start of UK's run, one of them an and-one, to close Tennessee's lead to to ten. And the noise started: the Kentucky faithful, once again taking up space at the top of the deck (and also in the seats of a significant number of season ticket holders downstairs - we have the tape, and we should pinpoint exactly which seats these were and revoke the privilege they clearly have no respect for), watching their team come to life right before their eyes.
Wall scored the final two of his 19 points to bring the Cats within four, 61-57 with still more than five minutes to play. Then Kentucky went to Cousins: the big fella responded with two free throws, a blocked shot, and consecutive dunks that finally tied the game at 65-65.
Again, you're watching NBA lottery picks at work. And when they're doing their thing, Kentucky can shoot 2 for 22 from three and still erase a 19 point hole.
But with the Big Blue faithful on their feet and the lead completely blown...the Vols didn't fold.
Poise and Balance
There were big plays made during the midst of Kentucky's run that may fly under the radar, simply because so much happened in this game. Bobby Maze drove inside and scored on consecutive possessions when Kentucky cut the lead to seven. When the Cats kept coming, J.P. Prince scored on a brilliant move inside to put the Vols back up six. Tennessee needed every point they got leading up to the final two minutes, and those plays during UK's run were just as important as the early threes in the Vols' 18-0 run.
Scotty Hopson hit the biggest shot, but J.P. Prince was the best player on the floor in orange today. He scored inside with the game tied to put the Vols up 67-65. And after Hopson's three, Prince hit four straight free throws to ice it. That's not a typo.
Mr. Stat Sheet finally had the game we were looking for: 20 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal, and most importantly...1 turnover. We finally got the good without the bad from Prince, and as such he is the player most responsible for today's outcome. We love you, J.P. We've always loved you.
Prince was great, and Hopson was money (...for the second game in a row, no less). But one of the most interesting aspects of today's game is that Wayne Chism - the guy that you and me and everyone thought was the real key to Tennessee's chances on both ends of the floor - really didn't play his best. And the Vols got great play from Prince and Maze, and enough from everyone else to make up the difference, and won anyway.
Chism got 6 rebounds in 32 minutes, but scored only 8 points on 4 of 12 shooting. Cousins had his usual jaw-dropper with 15 and 14, Patrick Patterson had 10 and 5, and they each had two blocks. Chism was outplayed by both big men from Kentucky...and the Vols still won. Kentucky had the talent and the momentum to win that game in the final two minutes...and Tennessee didn't let them.
The Moment and The Process
The loss at Florida is now a distant memory, as Tennessee goes to 21-7, 9-5 in the SEC. The Vols will finish either third or fourth in the SEC East, but will be dancing either way. And if the Vols can finish strong next week against Arkansas and at Mississippi State, they'll add that to the best pair of signature wins in college basketball on their resume. Today, we're talking more about 4 seeds than 7 seeds...and the Vols can make sure it stays that way next week.
And no matter what happens now, even if this team crashes and burns in Nashville and gets knocked off in the first round of the NCAA Tournament...I mean, what an incredible ride this has been. What an incredible story this team is. The Vols made sure that the 2009-10 season was a special one with their win today. We'll reflect on this more after it's over. And that's the best news: we're not done yet.
But for the moment...today was special by itself. Beating Kentucky is something to be cherished. And under Bruce Pearl, the Vols have served notice that the days of UK coming into Knoxville and leaving with a free win are over. Pearl and Calipari are now 3-3 in their five year war...and though I'm not sure either would admit it, their respect for each other is at least trying to grow.
We saw a ton of NBA talent on the floor today, and the vast majority of it was wearing white. And it may be that this loss is yet another step on Kentucky's journey to becoming not just great talent, but a great team. If they knock down threes, they can beat anyone they'll see in March.
The Vols don't have Kentucky's talent or resume this season. But on this day, we stood toe to toe with our greatest rival, against the coach we love to hate the most and the wealth of NBA talent he's brought to Lexington...and we won. We won.
It was one more great game for this rivalry.
And one more great win in the incredible story of this Tennessee team.