The No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers (13-4, 6-4) entered Rupp Arena on Saturday night with a chance to really make some noise. Not only did they have an opportunity contribute to the Kentucky Wildcats’ (5-12, 4-6) disappointing season, but they also needed a big win after a discouraging loss to the Ole Miss Rebels earlier in the week.
The Vols were able to do just that thanks to a career nights from Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, who combined for 50 of Tennessee’s 82 points. Johnson finished with 27 points on 9-of-16 shooting, while Springer finished with 23 points on 9-of-17 shooting.
It wasn’t an easy win as Tennessee had to overcome a 10-point deficit in the second half, but the Rick Barnes’ squad was able to pull together over the final 12:00 of the game en route to their 13th win of the season.
Johnson was able to get things started with a bucket on Tennessee’s first possession, but it didn’t take long for Devin Askew to tie it up at two points apiece. A subsequent bucket from Yves Pons broke the tie and the Vols made another bucket to pull out to a 6-2 lead, but Kentucky was able to take an 8-6 lead thanks to six straight points. Josiah Jordan-James was able to tie the game up on the very next possession, but the Vols couldn’t avoid foul trouble early on.
Victor Bailey was finally able to break the tie and made it a 10-8 game with 14:55 left in the first half. Kentucky was on a 2:10 scoring drought at this point, so Tennessee’s defense was playing well. It just needed the offense —who was 5-of-11 from the field— to pick it up.
But that didn’t happen. Kentucky was able to overcome the deficit and built a 14-10 lead within a few possessions. The Vols were able to tie it up at 14, but four straight Kentucky baskets allowed the Cats to build a 24-18 lead with 9:34 left in the first half.
It looked as if things were about to get bad for the Vols. Kentucky made another three —which registered as the Cats’ fifth straight made shot at the time— to go up 27-20, but Tennessee continue to fight back. A 9-2 run helped the Vols tie the game up at 29. A free throw gave the Cats a one-point lead, but a Pons 3 that registered as Tennessee’s seventh-straight shot gave the Vols a 32-30 lead until a Dontaie Allen 3 put the Cats back up, 33-32 with 5:42 left in the first half.
A 12-2 run by the Cats that included a 3:28 Tennessee scoring drought over those final five minutes and change allowed Kentucky to go into halftime with a 42-34 lead. The Vols also turned the ball over four times in the final 6:37 of the first half.
The seven turnovers were killing Tennessee, who was 44% from the field compared to Kentucky’s 35%. Neither team was really hitting their shots from downtown, either, and both teams were basically even on the boards. The Vols had to quit coughing up the ball if they wanted a shot at winning this game.
The Vols were able to cut Kentucky’s lead to 44-39 within the first couple minutes of the second half, but five consecutive missed shots allowed the Cats to pull back out in front, 48-41, with 15:48 left in the game.
Kentucky was having issues with turnovers itself to open the second half, but Tennessee still couldn’t close the gap. A questionable charging call netted John Fulkerson his fourth foul with over 13:00 left in the game, so Tennessee was going to be without one of its best players for the rest of the contest. This was after a first half that saw Fulkerson play just three minutes after three quick fouls.
Tennessee simply couldn’t do anything right. Kentucky was dominating in the paint on both sides of the court, but the bench was lighting it up with 27 points. Kentucky had also made seven of its last 10 shots (Tennessee was 3-of-10 at this point), which helped build a 58-48 lead with 11:58 to go.
Basketball is a game of runs, however, and Tennessee was finally able to put an 8-0 run together that made it a 58-56 game. The Vols were 2-for-2 compared to Kentucky’s 0-for-3 since the 11:51 media timeout and were finally starting to string together some consistent offense.
A Pons bucket tied the game up at 58 and a Kentucky turnover gave Tennessee the ball back with a chance to break the tie and take its first lead since it went up, 32-30, in the first half. A Johnson layup —which gave him his 19th point of the game— extended Tennessee’s run to 12-0 and gave the Vols a 60-58 lead, but Devin Askew immediately made a layup on the other end to tie the game back up at 60.
Tennessee couldn’t break the tie and Keion Brooks Jr. was fouled on Kentucky’s next possession, which gave the Cats a chance to reclaim the lead. Both teams continued to battle back and forth. Tennessee had a great opportunity to take a two-point lead, but Johnson’s dunk was absolutely denied by Davion Mintz in the lane. Tennessee was able to recover the ball, however, and Johnson was fouled. He made both free throws and then Jaden Springer made a layup on the next possession to give Tennessee a 68-64 lead. A UK turnover led to more free throws for the Vols and Johnson made both shots to put Tennessee up, 70-64, with 5:45 left in the game. Tennessee was on an 8-0 run at this point and were showing no signs of slowing down.
Johnson continued to play the game of his life and made a gigantic block on Brooks Jr. while he was attempting a 3-pointer. Tennessee was able to convert the turnover into two points and now led, 72-64, with just over 5:00 to play.
The Cats were just 2-of-11 and were in the midst of a 2:50 scoring drought at this point. Nothing was going right. They also had nine second-half turnovers, which were a major reason they were trailing by eight points.
Kentucky didn’t hit a single shot for over 4:30, which allowed the Vols to increase their lead to 10 points. The drought finally ended once Askew was able to make a layup, but Santiago Vescovi drained a 3 on the subsequent possession to put the Vols up, 79-68, with 1:18 left in the game. Vescovi’s shot looked to be the final dagger unless the Cats pulled off a miracle.
The miracle didn’t happen and Tennessee went on to win, 82-71. The Vols shot 32-of-68 from the field that included a 5-of-19 mark from downtown, but what was more important than anything was the fact they cut down on the turnovers. Tennessee turned it over just four times in the second half after committing seven turnovers in the first half.
Tennessee is now set to host the No. 22 Florida Gators on Wednesday, February 10. Tipoff is currently set for 8PM EST.
You can check out the final score and stats here.