The Tennessee Volunteers (17-13, 9-8) and the Kentucky Wildcats (24-6, 14-3) have split in-season meetings every year since 2012, and after Tuesday night’s incredible comeback victory, that trend will stick for at least another year.
Tennessee erased a 17-point, second-half deficit as John Fulkerson led the way (again) with 27 points, but some clutch rebounding and shooting (Josiah Jordan-James, anyone?) is what really made the difference in the second half.
It looked as if neither team would score during the first minute of the game, but Tyrese Maxey eliminated all doubt as he made the first bucket of the game to give the Wildcats a 2-0 lead with 19:15 left in the first half.
Maxey was able to take advantage of an and-1 situation, which gave the Cats a 5-0 lead, but John Fulkerson made a quick bucket on the other end to make it a one-score game at 5-2. Ashton Hagans pushed the score to a two-possession game with a layup of his own, but a 5-2 run from the Vols tied the game at 7-7 with 16:21 to go in the first half.
Josiah Jordan-James was able to find Fulkerson for the easy layup to give the Vols a 9-7 lead, but Maxey continued to do his thing and scored over Yves Pons to tie the game back up at 9-9 with 14:23 left in the first half.
Everything seemed close until the Cats went on a 15-2 run over the next 4:30 of the game. All of a sudden, Kentucky led, 24-11, with under 10 minutes left in the first half.
An 8-2 run from the Vols made it a 26-19 game, but Kentucky eventually pulled away and led 42-31 at halftime.
John Fulkerson was a perfect 7-of-7 from the floor and 1-of-1 from the free throw line in the first half. He lead the team with 15 points, while Maxey was making his presence felt on the other end with 14 points of his own on 5-of-7 shooting.
Both teams were making shots in the first half. The Vols shot around 55% as a whole from the floor, including a 40% mark from the perimeter. Kentucky shot around 56% and was even better from the three-point line with an 80% hit rate.
Tennessee was still struggling with turnovers, however. That had to get cleaned up if the Vols wanted any chance at winning the game.
But, as it just so turned out, the Vols saved their best for the second half of the game. And Kentucky, well, they didn’t.
It didn’t look like that was the case at first, though. Kentucky pounced on the Vols early and stretched its lead to 51-37 by the 16:05 mark. The Wildcats led by as many as 17 during those first few minutes.
The Vols eventually built a 12-2 run to cut Kentucky’s lead to seven. Then, Fulkerson was able to take advantage of an and-1 opportunity to cut the lead to two points. All it took was a Josiah Jordan-James deep shot to take the lead, 61-60, with about 6:41 left in the game.
Tennessee held a four-point lead with under two minutes to go. A clutch put back from Yves Pons off a Fulkerson miss made it a full two-possession game heading into the final 1:30. Things were starting to look really, really good for Tennessee.
Rick Barnes’ squad out-rebounded and out-hustled the Cats all through the second half and by the time Kentucky had to make its final push, it was simply out of energy. The Vols would go on to ice the game at the charity stripe and escape Lexington with a 81-73 win.
The Vols will now close out their season in Thompson-Boling Arena when they host the Auburn Tigers on Saturday, March 8. Tip-off is currently set for 12PM EST.