Losing 64-58 to bitter rival Kentucky on your home floor when that team has displayed an inability to win on the road all year isn't the way you want to conclude your regular season. Finishing 3-6 over the last nine games isn't exactly the momentum you're looking for going into tournament season. But that's exactly where the Tennessee Volunteers find themselves after blowing a huge opportunity to better their resume and build momentum this weekend.
Tennessee seemed to have the game in hand in the first half. Its defense was stifling, holding Kentucky to 28.6% shooting from the field and 20% from the three point line. They were forcing more turnovers (6-3), getting more points in the paint (18-12), and holding their own on the boards despite having Brian Williams on the bench in street clothes due to a sore back. Tobias Harris was well on his way to having yet another stellar game (12 points, 5 rebounds), and Scotty Hopson had only two points, but it was only a matter of time, right? The Vols went into the locker room 29-22, and it certainly looked like the Wildcats weren't going to cure their road woes against the Volunteers.
Wrong. After scoring only 22 points in the first half, Kentucky absolutely lit up in the 2nd, scoring nearly twice that amount (42) in the second. They hit 11-25 (44%) field goals and 6-13 (46.2%) from behind the arc. Yes, they shot better from three than they did from two, thanks in large part to Brandon Knight and Darius Miller, who hit a combined 5 of 10.
The impact of Williams's absence, too, became more pronounced in the second half, as the Vols managed only 11 rebounds and four second chance points after the break. Apart from not hitting a single three-pointer in the second half and going scoreless for extended periods, the Tennessee offense didn't actually play that badly. Hopson eventually found a way to contribute by driving, drawing fouls against key opponents, and hitting most of his free throws. But the team just couldn't keep Kentucky from hitting jumpers, and that was really the difference in the game.
So with the regular season concluded, Tennessee finds itself at 18-13 overall and 8-8 in conference play. They've lost 8 home games, and they've just about milked dry the 7-game season-opening win streak and the impressive wins over Villanova and Pitt. Except for the win at #18 Vanderbilt a couple of weeks ago, there's little but ever-distant memories to tap into for hope for the postseason.
But they did win at Vandy and the memories of holding their own against the best of the Big East linger still. And don't forget this: The postseason is unpredictable. And who does unpredictable better than Tennessee? Right.