When I'm on postgame recap duty, I tend to write as I go, jotting down my thoughts before compiling them all at the end. Sometimes, the game's narrative is pretty clear from the outset, enabling me to put something up as the seconds tick down. Sometimes, things shift wildly and what you wrote down earlier doesn't make any sense.
Tonight was, in a word, nonsensical.
For the first 14:13, there was a pretty clear story arc: Kentucky is good. They led 34-13, shooting well over 50% from the floor and using their length to keep Tennessee completely off kilter when the Vols were on offense. At one point, Poythress had 12 points on 5/6 shooting from the field; UT was shooting 5/22 from the field. Kentucky may not have the thoroughbreds they had last year on their way to 38-0, but there is ample talent and it showed. The Vols, meanwhile, looked completely drained by last week's second half collapses. It was kind of understandable that they might get run off the court by Kentucky, but it was still a bit dispiriting.
In the next 5:47, UT's resilience became the prevailing theme, as two Punter free throws and a Mostella 3 ignited a 10-0 run that stretched to 23-8 before halftime. 13 of those points came at the stripe as the game bogged down and the Vols interrupted Kentucky's rhythm. Despite being dominated for the first 15 minutes, the Vols found themselves down just 6 at the half. The handful of UT fans in attendance roared in approval as the good guys jogged to the tunnel.
The first 8 minutes of the second half looked like something you never could've believed when the game started: two equals trading blows. A Baulkman dunk was answered by Poythress. A KP jumper and deep ball were matched by Briscoe and Murray. The Vols kept coming, using some man stuff from Armani and deep balls from Schofield and Mostella to take their first lead of the night at 56-54. UK responded with back-to-back 3's to regain the lead. The Vols cut it to 2. UK pushed it back to 4. They kept going at each other and it was...fun? Weird? Unexpected? Some combination of all of those things, for sure.
When Armani hit a triple to tie the game at 63 and Poythress picked up his 4th foul, you started to entertain notions that something special could happen here. Hubbs' first basket of the night and 1 out of 2 free throws gave the Vols their largest lead of the night. A Shembari shoulder shake in transition pushed the lead to 5 only for Murray to rattle home a 3 to cut into it. The Vols lost some composure, mixing a silly goaltending with questionable shot selection to allow UK to tie it up at 70. A Hubbs free throw put the Vols back up 71-70 with 5 minutes left.
On the next possession, UK got just what they wanted as Poythress had position on Schofield on the block, but he fumbled it out of bounds. Kentucky pressed on the inbounds and Mostella got a flying reverse layup to make it 73-70. On their next possession, UK turned it over in the lane and Kevin Punter took an ill-advised three on the break. Funny thing about Kevin Punter's ill-advised shots...a lot of them go in. He drained it over Ulis to make it 76-70, and Cal wanted a timeout.
Armani got it up to 7 by fouling out Poythress, but the Cats came back, getting within 77-74. After Moore got blocked out of bounds, a near 5-second call instead ended with a Hubbs dunk. After Ulis missed a freebie, Schofield took an unnecessary 3, but Armani secured the board, giving the Vols a chance to bleed more clock and take it to free throws. Punter hit 1 of 2 to make it 80-74, but UK hit a 3 to cut the lead in half. Hubbs pushed it back to 5 with a pair of free throws, and after a wild series of UK misses and boards, Armani dove on the floor to secure the board and the game.
Kentucky got 21 and 5 assists from Murray (on 20 shots), 20 and 5 assists from Ulis, and 14 from Poythress, who was limited to 17 minutes and fouled out. Beyond those three, the Cats didn't get much.
Punter, once again, did Punter things by scoring 27 in 37 minutes, but he had help tonight. Armani had a double-double with 18 points and 13 boards (in 38 minutes!), Mostella added 13, and Schofield pitched in 11. Hubbs had 8 off the bench.
Good luck trying to make sense of this game or this team. They were blitzed by two mediocre to bad teams last week, but they just beat the best team they've played in months. They were down 3 touchdowns in a game where you can only score 1, 2, or 3 points at a time, but they came all the way back and won it. They were solid from deep (8 of 19 on the night), but not otherworldly like they were against South Carolina. 30 of 34 at the stripe certainly helped, but they've been solid all year. They didn't just limit the damage on the boards, they won the rebounding battle on the night.
Sometimes, though, it's best to not think too hard about it and just enjoy the moment. Coming off the roughest week in what we knew would be a tough season, this was a great response against our biggest rival. It felt good. And the fact that I had delete the dour recap that I had spent the first 15 minutes of the first half writing? Well, that felt pretty good, too.