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Men's College Basketball: Vols Get First SEC Win Against Kentucky, 76-65

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The Vols were able to beat Kentucky for the third straight season under Rick Barnes.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Tennessee
Rick Barnes has John Calipari figured out.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Usually when you are 0-2 in SEC conference play and your next game is against Kentucky - you're scared.

But with Rick Barnes running the show, both the Vols players and fans have no fears nor worries when it comes to taking on one of the most storied programs in NCAA men's basketball history.

Tennessee is 2-2 against Kentucky under Barnes, with his signature win coming last season after the Vols topped the #4 ranked Cats, 82-80.

The Vols hosted Kentucky in Saturday night's matchup while looking for their first SEC win on the young 2017 season. Despite a strong non-conference start, Tennessee couldn't beat Arkansas nor Auburn to begin conference play, leaving the Vols in a desperate spot to get out from behind the eight ball.

Saturday's game was a challenge from the start - which is to be expected any time you play the Wildcats - but Tennessee held their own. Both teams benefitted from great inside play early on and the Vols held their own midway through the first half, trailing just 16-15.

But a suffocating Kentucky defense led the Wildcats on a 9-0 run that included two UT turnovers to give them a 24-15 lead with a little over seven minutes to go in the first half. Six UT turnovers had led to eight points for Kentucky by this point.

Tennessee went almost five and a half minutes before recording an offensive bucket and missed seven straight shots, but only trailed by five points, 24-19. Just as UK began to pull away, sophomore guard Jordan Bowden and junior forward Admiral Schofield hit two big three pointers to pull the Vols within three, 28-25.

A huge offensive foul on the Wildcats' Killeya-Jones and then a subsequent foul on the UK defense led to two made free-throws to pull the Vols within one, but back-to-back turnovers from Tennessee helped ignite a 9-2 run by the Wildcats to give them a 37-29 lead at halftime.

Slow offensive tempo and a lack of an interior presence on defense resulted in a season-low 29 first-half points for the Vols. Kentucky made 56% of their field goals and shot 50% from three-point range.

Rick Barnes and co. were in desperate need of a spark, but would they get it?

The second half could not have started any better for the Vols. An excellent opening defensive possession for UT resulted in an offensive foul for the Cats and gave the Vols the ball right back after the opening inbounds pass. Sophomore forward Grant Williams then went on to make his first basket of the game and the Cats followed up their next possession with a turnover, which led to a huge slam dunk by Schofield to cut the Cats lead to four, 37-33.

Three Wildcat turnovers allowed Tennessee to tie the game 39-39 after Williams made his second jumper of the game. Both teams then swapped leads on the next three possessions, but an and-1 sequence would give the lead back to UK, 45-43.

But as soon as UK had momentum, they lost it. Consecutive fouls on Gabriel led to a wide-open three point shot made by Vols guard Lamonte Turner to tie the game up, 47-47. Grant Williams would later sink one to give the Vols the lead again, 49-47.

Kentucky lost one of their key inside players shortly thereafter when forward Wenyen Gabriel recorded his fifth foul of the game. The foul trouble didn't stop there, either. Jones for UK and Turner for UT each recorded a double-technical, making that two double-technicals for the game, which gave the Vols their largest lead of the night, 51-47.

At this point, Kentucky had gone two minutes without scoring a single basket.

Fortunately for Tennessee it was the opposite.

The Vols senior guard James Daniel III made his first shot attempt of the game, which just happened to be a three-point shot to give the Vols a 54-47 lead. The lid just about blew off of Thompson-Bowling when the shot went through.

The Vols rode that momentum and a swarming defense to a 14-7 run and held a 68-57 lead with just 4:17 left in the game. The Vols had shot 60% from the floor in the second half at this point. They had scored 23 field goals throughout the game while assisting on 22 of the made field goals.

Tennessee and Barnes would ride their defense and offensive rebounding the rest of the way to become the first program to beat Kentucky head coach John Calipari on their home court three straight times. The 76-65 victory puts the Vols right back in the race for the top seed in the SEC tournament and should move them up in the national rankings as well.

When it comes to beating Kentucky, the Vols may have figured out the formula. UT ended up with 23 assists on 25 made field goals for the night - a certain, central catalyst that helped lead the Vols to victory.

Up next is rival Vanderbilt. Look for the Vols to extend the momentum from this game and pull within .500 in conference play come Tuesday.