The Tennessee Volunteers entered Rupp Arena in search of their 20th straight win, but instead found nothing but pain and misery as they were handedly beaten by the Kentucky Wildcats.
The 86-69 defeat not only saw Tennessee trail by a season-high 20 points, it was an insanely frustrating second half that began with a 14-0 Wildcat run that proved to be the turning point on the night.
Jordan Bone was able to knock down the first shot of the game, but PJ Washington erased the Vols’ lead after he hit his first three-point attempt. It was insult added to literal injury after Admiral Schofield left the game earlier with some sort of injury.
Washington then made a bucket in the low post, but Schofield was able to hit a jumper after returning from injury. The Vols trailed, 5-4 with 15:51 to play in the first period.
The Wildcats were able to get out to a 9-4 lead, but a three by Grant Williams closed the lead to 9-7.
But UK began to find their groove on offense as they hit five of their next eight shots - including three of five from three - to build a 23-15 lead. The Vols were able to keep some type of pace thanks to great play by Bone, but Tennessee needed a spark somewhere else.
Fortunately, Williams was able to provide that spark with his second three of the game to cut the Cats’ lead to 23-18 with 6:25 left in the first period. Despite the dominate performance by Washington and and Keldon Johnson, it was a five-point game.
Both teams were over 44 percent from the floor at this point, but UT had yet to get a crack at the charity stripe at this point. Tennessee would have to some get physical if they wanted a shot at the lead.
That physicality continued to evade them as Kentucky continued to pound both the boards and the inside of UT’s defense. The Cats were able to eventually build a 29-21 lead, but the deficit felt like much more.
The crazy part of it all was despite Kentucky’s physicality, they had just one foul at this point in the game. They were also forcing the Vols into taking jumpers instead of driving inside, which is what Tennessee does best.
But just like all season long, Tennessee continued to fight. A 6-2 run keyed by four Schofield points had the Vols within four points, 31-27 with just over 1:30 left in the first half.
Washington continued to deliver, hitting another shot in the low post, but Williams was able to keep the ball alive off a Bone tip to keep the game within four points.
A nice move by Ashton Hagans eventually broke the four-point deficit and the Wildcats took a 37-31 lead into halftime.
UK finished the first half shooting almost 60 percent from the floor, which included 44 percent from beyond the arc. Despite the offensive output, Tennessee trailed by just six points. The Vols had yet to hit the charity stripe as well.
If the team could just find a way to create a physical inside presence and get to the line, then everything should balance out.
Stopping the duo of Washington and Johnson would help, too. Both players combined for 26 of the team’s 37 points, including 11/18 from the floor and 4/6 from three-point range.
The complete opposite of both those scenarios came through to begin the second half. It started with another low-post bucket from Washington that was followed up by an offensive rebound, which led to a kick-out three-pointer from Tyler Herro to push the Kentucky lead to 42-31 within the first minute of the second period.
It was the largest lead of the game and was one point within matching the Vols’ largest deficit of the season.
A Grant Williams turnover led to two made Reid Travis free throws and all of a sudden, the Vols faced their largest deficit of the season as they trailed, 44-31 with 18:37 left to play.
Things didn’t get much better for the Vols. The Wildcats continued to pour it on, going on a 14-0 run (16-0 run since the last few second of the first half). Rupp Arena was in a frenzy as the Cats led 51-31.
The situation was becoming more and more dire for Tennessee. Would they be able to regain control and get back in this game?
Consecutive free throws from Williams ended the Vols’ scoring drought, but Tennessee still trailed, 51-33.
Kentucky continued its physical dominance, building a 58-36 lead that was highlighted by a Montgomery put-back dunk off a blocked shot attempt from Bowden.
Tennessee began to battle back, with an 11-0 run that was topped by a Schofield three. The score was now 62-49 with 9:33 to play and if the Vols could continue this pace, then all bets were off.
The Vols were able to keep the game within 13 points after a PJ Washington layup put the score at 64-51. Another Kentucky bucket pushed the lead to 66-51, but the Vols weren’t giving up just yet.
Despite the effort, Kentucky was able to press its foot down harder on the Vols’ necks after three consecutive offensive rebounds led to a three-point opportunity for Herro.
He made the free throw to convert the play and push the lead to 69-51. Tennessee continued to fight, but could only the close the gap to 11 points. The 77-66 deficit with just 1:!7 to play would be the closest Tennessee would come to ever getting back into the game.
Kentucky would go on to win by a final score of 86-69. The loss ends the 19 game win streak and drops the Vols to 23-2 (11-1) on the season.
Tennessee is now tied with LSU for a first-place tie (11-1) in the SEC. The Vols will host the Vanderbilt Commodores at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tip-off is scheduled for 7PM EST on Tuesday, February 19th.