There have been times where you could question the toughness and effort of this Tennessee team this year — today was not one of those times. The Volunteers met the No. 15 Kentucky Wildcats at Thompson-Boling Arena, and it was every bit of the slugfest that you’ve come to expect.
Eventually though, this undermanned Tennessee team would run out of steam.
A bumpy offensive start for Tennessee was aided by Kentucky handing out fouls. John Fulkerson was a foul-drawing machine, putting two quick ones on Kentucky big man EJ Montgomery. While it was clear the Wildcats were playing better offensive basketball, Tennessee kept pace by capitalizing on their mistakes.
A 9-4 Kentucky lead was quickly slashed to 9-8, as John Fulkerson came alive on the offensive end. Seven quick points from the Kingsport native powered the Volunteers early on, but Kentucky quickly found their offense again.
Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley led the way as a host of Wildcats scored a bucket to extend their lead. Kentucky took an early lead on the boards, giving them second chance opportunities, which they converted.
Fulkerson could only do so much. Down 18-11, Tennessee needed another scoring option to emerge. As we’ve seen many times before, the looks were there, but the shots weren’t falling for the Vols.
Kentucky’s lead swelled to 23-15 as Nick Richards came alive in the post. Rick Barnes called for timeout after another 5-0 Kentucky run, only to watch Nate Sestina splash home a three.
The Wildcats had suddenly taken total control, and Tennessee quite frankly couldn’t find answers. Kentucky’s defense was swarming, suffocating passing lanes and creating fast breaks. John Calipari swapped to a zone look in the middle of the first half, and Tennessee couldn’t do anything with it.
Finally, Jordan Bowden hit a three at the end of the half, just Tennessee’s second of the day. Fulkerson went to the free throw stripe to add two more, stopping the bleeding and pulling the Vols back to a 37-30 deficit before halftime.
It was more of the same to open the second half. Johnny Juzang lifted the Wildcats back to a ten point lead with five quick points, but Tennessee continued to hang around. A Santiago Vescovi three and two Bowden free throws served as an early answer. But Tennessee was going to need to do more than just answer the Wildcats to make a run at the upset.
Yves Pons was doing all he could defensively. Back to back blocks sparked Tennessee with life in the middle portion of the half, complete with a Santiago Vescovi three from near half-court. Vescovi hit another after a couple of offensive rebounds, breathing new life into Tennessee.
With 9:12 to play, the Kentucky lead was down to 51-47.
After a timeout on the floor, the Wildcats collected themselves. Richards got to the free throw line, making one, then an offensive rebound gave the Wildcats two more points. Following a Pons bucket, Richards went to work again, connecting again through contact to draw the foul.
After working it down to four, the Kentucky lead shot right back to eight at 59-51. Calipari’s team settled down and began getting the ball back into the paint with success. Hagans, Maxey, Quickley and Juzang each took turns getting to the rim, sustaining a nine point advantage over the next several minutes.
Vescovi wouldn’t go down quietly though. The freshman point guard hit another three with three minutes left, cutting the lead back down to five. Jalen Johnson blocked a shot at the other end, but Bowden missed a three that would have really made things interesting. Pons missed another one off a wide open look on the next possession.
That would serve as a microcosm for this game. Tennessee had a ton of chances, but the shots didn’t fall enough to close the deal. Credit to Kentucky, too. They picked themselves up in the middle of the second half and found their offense again to close things out.
Vescovi led the way for the Volunteers today, scoring 18 points. Bowden and Fulkerson added 16 each. It was Kentucky’s first win in Knoxville since 2015.
Tennessee moves to 5-5 in SEC play and 13-10 overall. They’ll be back in action against Arkansas at home on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET.