Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Something very special just happened.
I've been doing this 31 years. Other than my time in the student section for Jerry Green's last two and Buzz Peterson's first two years, I've been sitting in Section 315, Row 2 my whole life. As a child I sat there with my Dad during the tenures of Wade Houston and Kevin O'Neill. Championship-caliber Kentucky teams would come into Thompson-Boling Arena to face NIT-at-best-caliber Tennessee teams. You'd get all excited because you had a game on national television. Those clad in orange would be louder than ever. You'd start believing something good could happen.
And then Kentucky would turn it into a 40 minute dunk contest. And the Big Blue faithful would be the loudest voices in a very cavernous room, especially in the upper deck.
If you've been following Tennessee Basketball this whole time, you know years of this. During Bruce Pearl's tenure, we raised our own voices even higher. And we put some give with our take, scoring wins over a pair of Tubby Smith's teams, a Billy Gillispie squad, and John Calipari's first Kentucky squad, the John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins D-League franchise.
That was 2010, and it was the last time we'd beaten Kentucky. It came during a glorious late season run that sent the Vols to their first Elite Eight in program history.
Two years, eleven months, six straight losses to Kentucky and a world of disappointment in our athletic department later, today the University of Tennessee found its best day in the entire athletic department since J.P. Prince blocked away Evan Turner in St. Louis.
This may not have been a championship-caliber Kentucky team, not without Nerlens Noel. But for us in this rivalry, that does not matter today. The other UT victories over Kentucky in these last eight years of good basketball were fought, scratched, and clawed for. The Vols even got one of Calipari's Memphis teams in a blowout in December 2006, something he acknowledged in the postgame with his "I've had teams come up here and get smoked like this before" comment.
But nothing like today. I have never, even seen anything like today.
Tennessee - 13-10, 5-6 in the SEC, fighting for relevance and offensively challenged - took Kentucky into, through, around, and behind the woodshed, then set it on fire and burned it to the ground. And around the flames, today we dance.
We started tied 7-7. Then the Vols hit a 9-0 run. Then Kentucky hit a three to make it 16-10. Then the Vols hit an absolutely unbelievable 19-2 run to push the lead to 35-12. I was there and now I'm here in front of my screen looking at numbers like 35-12 or 88-58 and I still can't make it make sense.
This was a huge statement for this team, this coach, and this program. Six in a row to Kentucky is far too many. We had come too far and fought too hard over the last eight years of good basketball to have things go back to status quo with UK. And so on this day, Tennessee made it quite clear, again, that the days of Big Blue Nation making the short drive down to Knoxville and walking way with a free win are over. This was a huge win for Tennessee not just on the scoreboard, but in this rivalry.
Who made a difference for Tennessee today? Everybody.
Jarnell Stokes was Jarnell Stokes, 9 points and 9 rebounds to flirt with another double-double while going against Willie Cauley-Stein, who finished with a deuce of each. Jordan McRae was Jordan McRae, continuing to win the Honorary J.P. Prince Stat Sheet Award with 15 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks, 2 steals, and 5 turnovers. But no worries, because we only turned it over 5 times in the first half as a team.
The biggest reason? Trae Golden was The Best Trae Golden You've Ever Seen. 24 points on 6 of 8 shooting, 11 of 12 at the line. 8 assists, zero turnovers. Ze. Ro. Zero turnovers. It is without hyperbole that I say if he plays that well, we can beat anybody.
Armani Moore is a sneaky component to this team's best basketball, which we've now seen in consecutive ballgames against our two biggest rivals. He had 8 and 6 today, and is fantastic at creating his own shot, especially compared to the rest of this team. Josh Richardson, our best defender, gave his all for Tennessee on a loose ball that knocked him out of the game with the Vols still up huge in the second half. When that happened, I was worried Kentucky might make a run. Nope: more steam, as the lead swelled to 39. 39!
How about Skylar McBee, who lit the flame with two early threes and then hit another in his final TBA performance against the Cats? What about Kenny Hall, who may not have even seen the floor until Jarnell Stokes got in foul trouble, then bulldozed his way to a stunning 12 points, including two highlight reel throwdowns? How about Tennessee absolutely dominating the glass to the tune of 42-22?
Tennessee shot 58% from the floor, which is incredible by itself. I don't know what's more impressive about our threes: that we made them all, or that we stayed disciplined enough to only take five of them, then still scored 88 points. That's because we shot 80.6% at the free throw line, 25 of 31. Take this performance and frame it. Hang it in your office.
It all adds up to the biggest Tennessee win over Kentucky, ever. And it's not like we beat these guys on a regular basis to begin with, let alone blow them out.
The Kentucky faithful came hopeful, stayed quiet, and left with questions. I commend many of them for staying til the end; we know better than anyone how long it can take to get to your best basketball when you lose your best player. I think we'll see something better from them very soon.
But our perception of Tennessee's best basketball just changed significantly. This was a thirty point beatdown of the defending national champion on national television. The Vols go to 14-10, even in the league at 6-6. But the Vols also go to 68 in the RPI as I type this Saturday afternoon. Being that the lowest at-large RPI to make the field since the formula was adjusted was 67, guess what?
We control our own conversation about the bubble now. We danced today. Keep winning, and we'll dance in March.
That makes every game, not just this one, incredibly important. The journey continues Tuesday night at home against LSU, a familiar scenario for the Vols who played a huge late-season game with the Tigers last year, winning in Baton Rouge in overtime. Keep winning, we keep giving ourselves a chance.
For now, we celebrate today. I may live to be 100 and not see Tennessee beat Kentucky by 30 again. It was the perfect storm on the floor, an unbelievable shooting performance and a sensational effort on both ends of the floor for 40 minutes. That performance, combined with what this rivalry means, especially to those of us who have been following this basketball program for a long time, made it one of the most unbelievable and enjoyable days in the history of Thompson-Boling Arena.
It is, without question, the biggest win of Cuonzo Martin's young career. Today he did something no one - not Ray Mears, not Don DeVoe, not Bruce Pearl - has done before. And today his team gave us our greatest day in almost three years. This was more than just a win. This was more than just a statement. This was unlike anything I have ever seen.
Make no mistake: it is ALWAYS great to be a Tennessee Vol.
But today was greater than anything we've seen in almost three years. And for that, I am most thankful for this team, this coach, and all involved with Tennessee Basketball for this moment.
The Cats will be back, no doubt. But Tennessee is moving forward.
Tuesday night. Let's get it. Go Vols.