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Tennessee beats Kentucky 69 (nice) to 62, advances to SEC Championship

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The Vols are one game away from their first SEC Championship since 1979

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Tennessee vs Kentucky Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Despite scoring no field goals in the final 3:14 of the game, Tennessee beat Kentucky 69-62 in the second round of the SEC Tournament. The Vols will play Texas A&M for the SEC Tournament Championship tomorrow at 1 PM.

Kennedy Chandler missed the front end of a 1-and-1 free-throw opportunity late in the game, but otherwise, the Vols’ freshman point guard was absolutely brilliant. He led the Vols with 19 points on 8-16 shooting and scored four-straight critical points that ended a Kentucky scoring run a little past the midway point of the second half. Before I detail that stretch, check out Chandler’s shot chart: the outside shot wasn’t falling, but he missed just two looks in the paint.

Tennessee led by 13 with nine minutes left, but then the Wildcats scored six-straight and cut the Vols’ lead to just seven. That’s when Chandler drove straight to the hoop for two points and followed it with an immediate steal on a live-ball turnover. He went the length of the floor for an easy dunk on the other end that stretched out Tennessee’s lead back to 11.

Kentucky outscored the Vols 14-10 through the next five-ish minutes of the game, but John Fulkerson drew two crucial fouls on Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe in about 13 seconds around the 3:40 mark of the game, with the the second foul being Tshiebwe’s fifth that ousted him from the game.

Tshiebwe had been punishing Tennessee’s post players on the offensive glass in the second half after playing just eight minutes in the first half due to foul trouble. Before fouling out, Kentucky’s double-double machine had snared nine total boards and three on the offensive glass that led to second-chance buckets for the Wildcats.

In the final two minutes, Tennessee struggled with Kentucky’s full-court pressure, which has been a theme of late and nearly cost the Vols their recent win against Arkansas in the season’s final regular season game. Josiah-Jordan James turned it over on an inbounds pass that glanced out of bounds off Santiago Vescovi’s outstretched hands, and Kentucky cut Tennessee’s lead to just three points off two TyTy Washington made free throws.

But without Tshiebwe on the floor, the Vols were able to secure a couple defensive rebounds inside the game’s final minute — Vescovi snagged two of them and Zeigler one — though one of the Vescovi boards was inexplicably called an offensive foul on Santi despite him being hacked as soon as he had the ball in his hands.

The refs reviewed the play and decided that Vescovi committed an offensive foul by shouldering a Wildcat who was all up in Santi’s personal space. Kellan Grady missed the subsequent 3-point attempt and Zeigler snatched 1) the ball out of the air and 2) the chances for a comeback victory from Kentucky’s grasp.

The Wildcats’ outside shooting was the nail in their coffin today, as they managed just two makes out of 20 attempts.

On Twitter, I was pretty critical of Zeigler’s two turnovers, but he hit an important 3 with about three minutes left in the game, went an overall 6-8 from the free-throw line and nailed five of six shots from the charity stripe in the game’s final minute. He scored all 11 of his points in the second half.

This was perhaps Brandon Huntley-Hatfield’s best game of the season. He had eight points on 4-7 shooting and six rebounds, but, for the first time this year, he displayed the effective face-up, jump-shooting game that Vol fans knew he possessed from watching him in high school. Tennessee’s missed a legitimate scoring threat out of the post since Olivier Nkamhoua’s injury. Oh, yeah — Huntley-Hatfield did this, too.

Vescovi’s box score won’t wow anybody — nine points on just 2-8 shooting with three assists and three fouls — but he had five rebounds that were instrumental in Tennessee getting the dub.

Uros Plavsic had trouble guarding Kentucky in the post, but he hit three of his four shot attempts for six total points and led the team with eight rebounds — three of which came on the offensive glass.

Tennessee’s game against the Aggies tomorrow is a chance for UT to win the SEC Tournament for the first time since 1979. The Vols beat A&M 90-80 the only time the two teams played back in early February, but the Aggies are coming off two-straight wins against Auburn in the first round and Arkansas earlier today.