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Kentucky 80 Tennessee 70: Hot Shooting Cats Bury Vols in Two Minute Stretch

As they are prone to do in Rupp Arena, a sudden burst from Kentucky broke open a tight game early in the second half.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Vols have won just once away from Knoxville this year, and three of its last four losses came at Alabama (before they started their streak) and at TCU and Missouri, the worst teams in their respective conferences.  Playing in Rupp Arena against a Kentucky team hungry for revenge, Tennessee was a 17 point underdog and one might have reasonably expected worse.

Tennessee was game throughout the first half, holding the lead for the first eight minutes and trailing by only six at the break despite getting little from Kevin Punter.  He did hit a pair of free throws with 18:19 left in the game to pull the Vols back within six.  And two minutes later, the game was over.

The next nine possessions:

  1. Armani Moore fouled Jamal Murray while shooting a three
  2. Kyle Alexander made one of two free throws
  3. Derek Willis made a three
  4. Kevin Punter turned it over
  5. Isaiah Briscoe made one of two free throws
  6. Armani Moore missed a jumper
  7. Jamal Murray converted an and-one at the rim
  8. Derek Willis blocked a Kevin Punter shot
  9. Tyler Ulis made a three
At 18:19 the Vols were down six.  At 16:05 the Vols were down 18.

It went back and forth for most of the other 38 minutes; the Vols cut the lead to 12 with six minutes to play, but a 7-0 Kentucky run ended that threat.  Tennessee added a few late buckets to get the final margin back to 10.  But throughout, Kentucky got unbelievable play from Jamaal Murray and unbelievable shooting from Derek Willis.

Murray did one of the better versions of his thing, getting 28 points on 8 of 12 shooting.  Willis was left open for a number of good looks from three - it looked like at times they got him free on screens, and at times his being open was just a consequence of what Tennessee was committing to elsewhere defensively - and he buried 7 of 11 attempts.  That's going to beat the Vols and most teams on most nights.

Kevin Punter eventually found his way to 19 points but on just 4 of 14 shooting.  Armani Moore, as we mentioned in our game preview, averages 6.2 points per game in non-Kentucky SEC action.  But he has thrived in taking advantage of larger UK defenders in both contests, getting 18 points and 13 rebounds in Knoxville and 21 and 11 tonight.  It goes without saying the Vols could use more of that every night.

The biggest issue going forward could be the health of Devon Baulkman, who got tangled up underneath and went down with another shoulder injury.  He was getting a post-game x-ray to see the degree of the injury, but suffered multiple dislocations last year.

Tennessee drops to 12-14 (5-8), which thanks to midweek madness in the SEC leaves them and Arkansas just one game out of Wednesday in the SEC Tournament.  The Vols have the head-to-head tiebreaker with Mississippi State, while they split with Bruce Pearl's other 4-9 team.  But the Vols will probably need another win or two down the stretch to be safe.  The next change comes almost immediately, as Ben Simmons and the LSU Tigers come to Knoxville for a 5:30 Saturday tip.

I thought tonight was a better performance than the ones we've seen from the Vols in their last four road outings, but in Rupp Arena you're always going to need something more than simply better.  But this team fought hard despite getting hit with the haymaker early in the second half; if that fight and the usual Knoxville boost shows up Saturday, I'd expect a good ballgame.  Credit Rick Barnes for getting this ragtag group to stay invested.

Go Vols.