Few things make one sing/scream Rocky Top at the top of your lungs like beating Kentucky in basketball.
The upper deck at Thompson-Boling Arena has always been ground zero of this rivalry, and tonight the usual pleasantries were exchanged between orange and blue. The first 14 minutes felt like the early-to-mid-90s up there: a much more talented Kentucky team runs Tennessee out of its own gym immediately, suffocating hope before it draws a good breath. Down 34-13 with less than six minutes to play in the first half the orange portion of the nearly 20,000 in attendance tonight were stealing glances at the exits, and the narrative of Rick Barnes' first season felt like it was about to become more about looking ahead to his second season.
The Vols' blown leads have been well documented this past week. There was little to suggest what was about to happen. But sometimes this game has a way of defying all your expectations.
Big plays started Tennessee's run - Detrick Mostella's three and Kevin Punter's and-one - but the majority of the work here was done at the free throw line.
The teams you remember tend to be the best ones, the best ones tend to have talent, and often the most talented teams aren't great free throw shooting teams, as John Calipari can attest to. So I don't remember ever pulling for a Tennessee team that was great from the free throw line. I don't know how to pull for this one. I feel like I still expect something bad to happen there. This team is shooting 83% from the line in conference play and went 30 of 34 tonight. I don't know.
It's not a bad formula going forward. Kevin Punter is really good at drawing fouls, and as the small ball Vols are unusually good at not fouling in the post themselves, they can create a disadvantage like the one we saw tonight when they go hard and scrappy to the boards. Kentucky, who at one point had doubled-up the Vols in the rebounding department 18 to 9 in their early run, ended up losing the war on the glass by a single rebound. And the Vols stayed aggressive and didn't revert to heave and hope, even when the latter was nonexistent down 21. In doing so Tennessee got to the free throw line 34 times, Kentucky just 23.
I'm so mad at myself for not DVRing this thing, and with signing day looming the usual replay options are swallowed up with recruiting coverage. The second half was just great basketball on both sides. Tyler Ulis is one of Kentucky's least heralded players and he scares me the most. I'm thankful Jamal Murray settled for some threes, because he looked much more dangerous inside the arc. But Tennessee was plenty dangerous too.
In particular, the Vols got Armani Moore to deliver his best game of the season. The good work of Punter and Mostella allowed Moore to get some one-on-one looks from the top of the key. Playing small ball means you may suffer inside defensively, but it also means a team has to try and stop someone like Punter with a slower defender. Derek Willis got the worst of that deal tonight, and Armani's 18 points were the most he's scored since getting 29 against Army way back on November 24.
Kentucky didn't fold because they're Kentucky. Tennessee's five point lead with seven minutes to play lasted one possession before Kentucky sliced it back to two. Our seven point lead with 3:27 to go lasted 16 seconds before Kentucky cut it to five, then back to three the next time down the floor. I've been sitting in that upper deck my whole life watching some fairly good Tennessee teams play really good basketball against Kentucky for something like 32 minutes. But when you go back to even fairly good in those other eight and it's Kentucky on the other end of the floor, 32 minutes aren't enough. You need all 40.
But Tennessee unbelievably needed only 26 or so tonight to turn a 21 point hole into a seven point win - more on those specific numbers in a second - and the plays they made in those final seven minutes speak volumes about what this team is genuinely capable of.
The Vols hammered Florida and did the same to South Carolina for much of the second half. But really only against Mississippi State has Tennessee been the more mature team in a tense final few minutes. It's one thing to make winning plays at the end of a tight game against the Bulldogs. It is another to do it to Kentucky. And tonight, the Vols got it from everyone, everywhere: Mostella and Punter, who started the initial run, going back to back on a driving layup and a ginormous three to put the Vols back up six after UK tied it at 70. Robert Hubbs slashing through the lane to score at the rim with 90 seconds to go to give Tennessee a two possession lead again. And Armani Moore finally winning an epic loose ball scramble for his 13th and final rebound, calling timeout to secure the victory with 13 seconds to go.
Against a schedule ranking 26th in KenPom and 33rd in RPI right now, Tennessee is now 11-11 (4-5). The Vols erased a 20 point deficit at Gonzaga before falling short in the final minute. They led Florida by 30 before winning by 14. They gave away a 10 point lead over Texas A&M with four minutes to play. In the last two weeks they've beaten a 17-1 South Carolina team, gave away a pair of 14 point second half leads at Alabama and TCU, and now erased a 21 point deficit against the Kentucky Wildcats in making Rick Barnes 1-0 against our biggest rival as Tennessee's coach. I don't know.
You can what-if this and any team to death. But this win gives Tennessee its third signature, and now back at .500 entering the second half of SEC play, if the Vols can make their way to .500 in league play by season's end I think they'll be in the NIT conversation. But, look, who knows what Saturday will bring? It's clearly no exaggeration to say this Tennessee team can give and take any lead, beat or be beaten by anyone. That means all that's left to do is focus on the next game and the next possession. That's at Arkansas Saturday night.
But first, we're going to enjoy this one a little longer.
It's what you do when you beat Kentucky. Everyone does it. But it is always worth repeating: we've done it better than anyone else.
When Calipari was asked in the postgame if he had ever lost a game up 21 before, he said, "Historically, you may have to look back, but if my teams get up 10 it's like 102." There are all-time comebacks, and then there was doing this to Kentucky.
We joke around here about Calipari, but it's abundantly clear the man is exceptionally good at his job. It's what helps make beating him mean even more.
We love going after Cal because we're more experienced at it than any other fan base in the country. It's not just his time at Kentucky, it's a decade at Memphis. And much of that time was spent openly trying to get that rivalry off the books, trying to stop playing Tennessee.
Since John Calipari’s return to college (2000-01), Tennessee and Louisville have the most wins over Calipari (6). Cincinnati has 5— Jimmy Hyams (@JimmyHyams) February 2, 2016
We're now better at that than anyone else too.