The Vols still haven’t figured out Rupp Arena, where they win around once per decade. But one of the lingering effects of Tennessee’s rise under Bruce Pearl has been UT’s ability to beat Kentucky in Knoxville.
In the last ten years, Tennessee is 5-4 against Kentucky at Thompson-Boling Arena. It’s a remarkable accomplishment after going 3-10 against the Cats at home in the previous 13 seasons, especially considering Kentucky’s own rise under John Calipari. As we prepare for another showdown with Kentucky tomorrow, here’s a look back at the last ten years in Knoxville:
2007: Bernard’s Jersey Retirement
Tennessee’s all-time great, who lost once to Kentucky then won the next five in a row, returned to have his jersey retired and the Vols didn’t disappoint. Behind 23 from Chris Lofton the Vols built a 16-point second half lead, watched Kentucky rally to tie it with four minutes to play, but held on thanks to great free-throw shooting to knock off the #20 Wildcats 89-85.
2008: The End of a Long Week
The Saturday prior saw the #2 Vols in Memphis, taking down John Calipari’s undefeated top-ranked Tiger squad. Tennessee went to #1, lost in the final seconds at Vanderbilt midweek, then had to face Kentucky back in Knoxville. A back-and-forth game went Tennessee’s way in the final minutes when the Cats couldn’t knock down a three in their final possessions, giving Tennessee a 63-60 win en route to an outright SEC Championship.
2009: Jodie Meeks
Not much else to say. I’ve long been impressed that Meeks went 20-for-20 at the free throw line in this game and the one in Lexington combined in 2009. But I’d forgotten just how good his shooting numbers were on this day in Knoxville: 15-of-22 from the floor, 10-of-15 from the arc. Meeks had 54, a Kentucky single-game record. The Cats’ next-leading scorer was Patrick Patterson with nine. Big Blue took the day 90-72.
2010: Cal’s First Team Goes Down
Tennessee’s eventual Elite Eight team lost at Florida 75-62 on February 23, dropping to 20-7 (8-5). Brian Williams was getting healthy and the Vols went to their Maze-Hopson-Prince-Chism-Williams starting lineup again when the #2 Cats came to Knoxville on February 28. The Vols unbelievably opened up a 19-point lead on what is still for my money the most talented of the Calipari Kentucky squads; it’s the only one with two NBA All-Stars in John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Kentucky, which shot 2-of-22 from the arc, rallied to tie the game. But behind a great play from J.P. Prince and a huge three from Scotty Hopson, Tennessee closed the game on a 9-0 run to become the second team to beat Cal’s first Cats 74-65. It would be the first of five straight for Tennessee, which lost to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament semifinals before making the program’s only run to the Elite Eight. How good was the Pearl Era? This was only his seventh biggest win according to our countdown from 2011.
2011: Pearl’s Last Game in Knoxville
One year later it was all coming undone. With Brian Williams out, Tobias Harris scored 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting, but the rest of the team was just 11-of-34. Kentucky held on late behind 19 from Brandon Knight in a 64-58 victory. A few days later the Vols were in the SEC Tournament and the narrative swung hard against Pearl with rumors of a multi-year show cause, a few days after that the Vols were blown out by Michigan in the NCAA Tournament’s first round, and a few days after that the Pearl Era was over.
2012: Jarnell’s Debut Almost Beats Anthony Davis
I said at the time Anthony Davis was still figuring out his own body; clearly he got that solved by March. The big story in Knoxville was the debut of Jarnell Stokes, freshly eligible and turning in a pleasantly-surprising nine points and four rebounds in 17 minutes. Tennessee fought the Cats to a 54-54 deadlock with seven minutes to play, but as we’ve seen time and again in this rivalry 33 minutes isn’t good enough: Kentucky pushed the lead to eight with a minute to play before Tennessee’s late rally was close-but-no-cigar in a 65-62 loss. Stokes’ arrival coincided with Pearl’s players buying into Cuonzo’s style, something a near-miss against the eventual national champs helped solidify.
2013: The Beat Down
In round two for Cuonzo, the Vols left no doubt. Kentucky was playing its first game without Nerlens Noel, lost for the year with a knee injury. Cuonzo’s Vols were not who you wanted to figure out a new offensive gameplan against: Kentucky shot 35.8% from the floor and turned it over 15 times. And Tennessee, good grief: 58% from the floor, 5-of-5 from the arc including three from Skylar McBee off the bench. Trae Golden had 24, Jordan McRae added 15, the Vols were up 50-26 at halftime and just kept rolling in an 88-58 blowout. This team barely missing the NCAA Tournament robs us of the long-term memory of this stretch: this win over Kentucky came in the midst of a six-game win streak which also included the four overtime win at Texas A&M and a home win over #8 Florida.
2014: No game in Knoxville
Because the SEC’s scheduling policy was momentarily stupid. This also denied Cuonzo’s last team a home date with the Cats, meaning Tennessee has a winning record in Knoxville in this series over the last decade despite the Vols’ best KenPom team in that span not getting a shot at Kentucky in TBA.
2015: Cold as Ice
Bad weather kept many away from Thompson-Boling, where Donnie Tyndall’s Vols played great defense for about 32 minutes. Kevin Punter cut undefeated Kentucky’s lead to four with nine minutes to play. But Tennessee couldn’t make any threes in the second half, and the Cats finished the game on an 18-4 run to win 66-48.
2016: The Comeback
Down 34-13 with six minutes to play in the first half, the Vols started getting to the free throw line. By halftime Kentucky’s lead was only six. The Vols got the lead six minutes into the second half, then broke open a 70-70 tie with five minutes left with a 7-0 run, including a huge Kevin Punter three. The Cats got it back to three with 30 seconds to go before Robert Hubbs hit a pair of free throws and Armani Moore chased down a loose ball on the floor, calling timeout and securing the victory. Punter had 27 and Moore had an 18-13. Tennessee was 30-of-34 from the free throw line in the biggest comeback in Knoxville since Lofton over Durant.
Which one of these was your favorite?