Kentucky spoils Tennessee showtime

Marvin Westwestwords

Kentucky faked us out

Four day earlier the Wildcats endured an awful loss at Rupp Arena to not-very-good South Carolina. Tennessee had trashed the Gamecocks by 43.

Coach John Calipari took a terrible flogging. That was the sixth setback for his team. Critics offered to double his pay and fund relocation if he would move to Texas.

No. 5 power Tennessee, winners of 25 consecutive games at Thompson-Boling Arena, was favored by 14 to make it 26. There was bonus motivation. Great three-point shooter Chris Lofton was being honored. Old Vols were in the house.

The ceremony just happened to be when Kentucky was in town, a helpful reminder that the Big Blue didn’t offer a scholarship to the kid from Maysville. The stage was set for a whoopee afternoon.

The game started favorably. Tennessee hit four of its first five shots. Kentucky missed its first six. The Wildcats looked sluggish and disjointed. Their point guard was on the injured list. This might be a rout.

It wasn’t. Tennessee turned sloppy. It struggled with inconsistent officiating. It suffered turnovers. It even had a shot-clock violation. Kentucky won the game, 63-56.

Backboard domination (43 to 23) was the winning edge.

“They just wanted to win more,” said Josiah-Jordan James. “For 40 minutes, they were more physical and more aggressive. We can’t go out there and play like that, play scared in a sense.”

Tennessee came in leading the SEC in rebounding margin (plus 9.94).

Rick Barnes said the difference in the game was rebounding.

“I mean, they did whatever they wanted to do on the boards. We still have too many guys that think offense, as opposed to understanding the role they have on the team.

“Give Kentucky credit. That rebounding was obviously a big part of their game plan. They look at those numbers just like everybody. They’re going to say we’re not going to get beat on the boards. And they thoroughly beat us there.

“Our frontline has got to do a better job. On the defensive end, we have to get everyone involved.”

Oscar Tshiebwe, national player of last year, contributed what he often does, a double-double, 13 rebounds and 15 points. Pleasantly surprising, Uros Plavsic had the offensive game of his life. He scored 19 and missed only two half-hooks. Uros failed to match Oscar in the backboard battle (he got three).

Rebounds? James led Tennessee with five. Jonas Aidoo had four. Olivier Nkamhoua played only 13 minutes and found two. Guards mostly watched.

The disparity in rebounds compounded Tennessee problems. There were 12 second-chance points. Additional possessions led to extra opportunities for fouls and free throws. Kentucky made 22 of 25. Antonio Reeves hit eight of eight.

Neither team shot particularly well. Zakai Zeigler was 3-for-12, Santiago Vescovi was 4-for-13 and James was 2-of-8.

“We missed a lot of shots at the rim,” Barnes said, ““We had some uncontested looks at the rim, point-blank layups. In games like this, you’ve got to make uncontested layups.”

The Vols were also off target from outside. They had three hits and 18 misses on three-pointers.

The game wasn’t over until the final minute. Kentucky led 58-50 with 3:28 left. Two free throws by Vescovi and two goals by Plavsic reduced the deficit to two. The big crowd found high hopes in a UK turnover. Alas, Zeigler and Plavsic missed down low.

Calipari said the strategy was to focus on the Vols’ perimeter play.

“They can beat us with threes. They won’t beat us with twos.”

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected]

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