Despite reaching their highest ranking of the season this week and solidifying themselves as the clear no. 2 in the SEC, this week marked one of the Vols toughest tests in conference play.
No. 15 Tennessee (18-5) ventured into Rupp Arena on Tuesday night-a place they haven’t won since 2006-, and extended their win streak to 6 and with a 61-59 win over No. 24 Kentucky (17-7).
Starting off, there was nothing that indicated this was a primetime match-up between two top 25 rival programs who are only separated an interstate and a couple of hours.
The Vols started 0-of-6 from beyond the arch and Kentucky was a slightly better 2-of-11. The home standing Wildcats went on a mini-run, scoring 4 unanswered to go ahead 12-9 over four minute span.
Lamonte Turner ended the cold streak for the Vols, knocking down Tennessee’s first three of the night to tie the game at 12 a piece with 7:02 left until the half.
Coming out of the media timeout, where you can be sure both John Calipari and Rick Barnes were urging their team to put together a better shot selection, both teams continued to struggle offensively.
Between the 7:02 and 5:15 mark of the 1st half, the only score came in the form a Grant Williams free-throw, but a big dunk from Kentucky forward Wenyen Gabriel breathed life back into Rupp Arena.
After a fast run instituted by Kentucky, Lamonte Turner came through again, hitting Tennessee’s second shot from outside to put the Vols ahead 24-22 with under a minute left.
For a game that had one of the worst offensive performances of the season, both teams closed out the half with some fireworks. Turner hit this third three of the game to put Tennessee up 27-24, but Kentucky guard Quade Green hit a jump shot as time expired to make it 27-26 at the half.
At the Half
Both squads made up for lost time to start the second half, as Tennessee and Kentucky traded shots at each end of the floor. But both defenses came to play by the 15:46 mark-holding each other scoreless for over a minute before the first media timeout of the second half.
It seemed that every time the lack of scoring had taken the crowd out of the game, Kentucky would come through with a big play. Out of a timeout, Kevin Knox took an ally-oop off of an inbounds play to tie the game at 35-35.
Grant Williams went to the bench with his third foul of the night with just over 12 minutes left in the game, and Kentucky took advantage. The Wildcats took a35-38 lead, their second of the second half, thanks in part to Tennessee’s turnovers and the absence of Williams.
On this night, one big run could decide the game and it looked like Kentucky was on the brink of doing just that several times. But, the Vols answered every time. Jordan Bowden lit a spark into the Tennessee bench with a dunk off of a steal to tie the game at 44-44 with under 9-minutes to go. Turner scored in transition to put the Vols back in front, 46-44.
Tennessee put together their largest lead of the night going up by four, 50-46-but a big foul on the other end put Kentucky at the line to pull the game within two. A big turnover by the Vols allowed the Wildcats to tie the game at 50 with 3:30 to go.
Despite every Tennessee answer, Kentucky was able to convert at the charity stripe to maintain a narrow lead down the stretch-that was until Turner put the Vols back in front with his 5th three of the night to take a 59-58 lead. Schofield put an exclamation point on the win with a dunk in transition to go up 61-58 with just 4.1 seconds on the clock and to complete their first sweep of Kentucky since the 1998-99 season.
Tennessee will head to Tuscaloosa on Saturday to face Alabama (15-9) who is coming off a loss at Mississippi State on Tuesday.