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Tennessee Beats Kentucky 82-80

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Having played the nation’s toughest schedule, the Vols finally got their signature win.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve played so many great teams this year and played so many of them well, it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the Vols were competitive with Kentucky. And in Knoxville, where the Vols had won five of the last nine in this series, even more so.

It can feel like you never really know for sure when you’re playing the Cats. But the efficient offense we saw from this team at Vanderbilt and in the second half against Mississippi State came for the party tonight: Tennessee shot 46.9% from the floor, using great ball movement to create good looks to start the game 5-of-7 from the arc and finish with 18 assists to only 10 turnovers.

With so many newcomers, injuries, and Detrick Mostella’s dismissal it’s taken more than half the year for us to be able to say this with confidence, but it was never more true than it was against Kentucky: Tennessee got its best play from its best players. You knew Robert Hubbs was going to be one of those guys, and he didn’t disappoint: 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting, owning the mid-range jumper tonight and hitting a huge shot to put the Vols up five with 1:07 to go.

Against Kentucky I’d also put Admiral Schofield on that list. Last year Rick Barnes utilized Armani Moore’s quickness against bigger defenders for 39 points and 24 rebounds in two games against the Cats. Tonight Schofield played that role with 15 points and seven rebounds. His ability to knock down a jumper but also get to the hole off a head fake was huge.

But I think everyone will be happy to put Grant Williams on the “our best players” list, not next year, but right now. Against Kentucky he had 13 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists (!), 4 blocks, and 3 steals. J.P. Prince would be so proud. He did all of that despite being plagued with leg cramps as Rick Barnes and the Vols asked for more minutes from him. But he had enough spring to knock down the biggest shot of the game: a baby hook as the shot clock wound down to put the Vols up five with 17 seconds to play.

This was no fluke; the Vols’ best players made it happen. But you don’t beat Kentucky with only your best players. Lamonte Turner had 10 points and 7 rebounds, helping offset an off night from Jordan Bone. And no one who watched this game will come away with anything but love for Lew Evans, who was already doing a bunch of stuff that doesn’t show up in the box score but added eight points, four rebounds, and three assists tonight. Tennessee needed every one of them.

Malik Monk got his 25 but it took him 19 shots to do it. I can assure you Bam Adebayo will be Kentucky’s general game plan when we do this again at Rupp: 7 of 8 from the floor, 7 of 8 from the line for 21 points. We could not guard him tonight and better figure it out between now and then. But the Cats only got four points from their bench.

Rick Barnes is now two-for-two against the Cats at Thompson-Boling, and this coaching staff deserves all kinds of credit for carving Kentucky up off a number of inbounds sets. Kentucky, down five at halftime and ten with 8:43 to play, was always a threat. But they never got closer than two, and after a crucial stretch featuring a Lew Evans bucket and a Robert Hubbs slam off a Grant Williams steal put the Vols up seven with 2:46 to play, Kentucky never got closer than three.

The Vols go to 11-9 (4-4). All those comments you would like to make (and be you, I mean me) about how a team with a 51 RPI and 42 KenPom with what is now the nation’s most difficult schedule is kind of a bubble team regardless of record? Talk to me if we beat Kansas State Saturday. This one gets to stand on its own.

Go Vols.