Kentucky challenged. Tennessee answered – with a historic 103-92 victory.
The Wildcats were determined to slow Dalton Knecht and they did it. The shooting star got only 16 points. That was a significant accomplishment for the blue team, a really big deal.
The Wildcats were not so fortunate against “other” Volunteers. Zakai Zeigler was at least sensational, maybe better. Josiah-Jordan James broke out of his eight-game slump. They scored 26 each. Ziggy had 13 assists.
Jonas Aidoo contributed 11 points and 11 rebounds. Santiago Vescovi scored 11 and hit three of four three-pointers.
Other good things happened. Tennessee scored over 100 for the first time in Rupp Arena. It equaled the largest winning margin in the building. Tennessee got more rebounds than Kentucky. Tennessee dominated in the paint, 42-30. It never allowed UK to take the lead.
There was great Volunteer teamwork, 22 assists and only seven turnovers. All five starters scored in double figures.
“Team win” said Vescovi, a tactful response to mid-week criticism after the loss to South Carolina. The Vols were accused of standing around while waiting for Knecht to make key plays.
He didn’t make many this night. The Wildcats cut off his drives and his aim was off from long range. He missed nine of 14 field-goal attempts but he did hit five free throws.
Rick Barnes addressed the “amazing difference” in this and the South Carolina games.
“The whole team effort was exciting.”
It was also effective.
Tennessee got off to a 13-3 start. It hit eight of the first 14 shots and led 21-10. Knecht fought through traffic, got a goal and a free throw and made it 36-22. The Wildcats got the message, picked up the pace and closed the gap with a 12-2 run. Tennessee led at intermission, 46-42.
The Wildcats reduced the deficit to one early in the second half. That was much too close for comfort. The crowd got excited. The game looked different.
Aidoo countered with a rebound basket. JJJ and Vescovi hit threes from the side. Tennessee delivered a 13-2 flurry. Pressure subsided.
The Vol lead was 10 when tempers spilled over. There was some pushing and shoving and angry words but officials did an outstanding job to prevent a brawl. Four technical fouls were assessed but nobody bled.
Freshman Rob Dillingham was Kentucky’s best weapon. He scored 35 (six of eight threes). Antonio Reeves added 21 points. Reed Sheppard scored 16.
Barnes, as is his style, praised coach John Calipari’s work with the young Wildcats and predicted better things to come.
Barnes found better things to say.
“That was Josiah’s best game for Tennessee.”
James had hit one three-point shot and missed 17 in the previous seven games. He was four of 31 since the middle of December. His 26 points against the Wildcats was his high as a Vol.
Vescovi said “we all knew Jo could do that.”
The veteran guard sounded very much like the coach when he added “we need everybody.”
The real coach was particularly proud of an incredible Ziggy play. He recovered a deflected alley-oop pass and, in the same motion, put the ball in the basket. Teammates said “wow!”
Next: Tennessee plays LSU at Food City Center on Wednesday. A few tickets are available. The Tigers are 12-9 and 4-4. The SEC Network will televise the game.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org