With the No. 2 seed and a first round bye in the SEC Tournament on the line, No. 23 Kentucky went into Thompson-Boling Arena and knocked off Tennessee 64-58.
Its the first time this season that Kentucky has beaten a quality opponent in a close game on the road. The Wildcats were just 1-6 in SEC play away from Rupp Arena — the one win coming against South Carolina — and they had only two other road wins this season. One of those came at Portland and the other was at Louisville, a game that a fair number of Kentucky fans attended.
After Kentucky lost to Arkansas back in late February, I went back and watched tape of the endings of Kentucky’s close road losses. It was obvious that the issue that Kentucky had wasn’t that they didn’t have the talent or the playmakers, its that the Wildcats seemed to completely lack the confidence and the poise needed to execute down the stretch of a close game.
On Sunday, it was Kentucky that made the plays down the stretch that won the game.
The Wildcats were thoroughly outplayed in the first half and lucky to be within seven points at the break. After turning things around and opening up a six point lead of their own at 49-43, UK allowed Tennessee to make a run. After a short jumper from Kenny Hall with eight minutes left in the game, the Vols took a 52-51 lead.
Terrence Jones answered on the ensuing possession, scoring off of an offensive rebound by Josh Harrellson. After three free throws from the Wildcats, Jones drove middle and kicked the ball out to Darius Miller. He drilled a three and all of a sudden Kentucky was up 59-55 with just three minutes left. A couple of defensive stops and five free throws later, the Wildcats were heading back to Lexington with the victory.
This is, without a doubt, a confidence booster for the Wildcats heading into the postseason. Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight were just 8-30 from the floor, Josh Harrellson was scoreless and finished with just five rebounds, and Doron Lamb was a non-factor. Still, Kentucky was able to make the plays when it mattered most on both ends of the floor.
That’s not something that the Wildcats have done this season, especially on the road.
Keep in mind, however, that the one of the few teams in the country more perplexing than Kentucky this season has been Tennessee. They have had the same issues as Kentucky, except the Vols are losing games at home. They’ve now dropped three in a row and four of their last five in Knoxville, dropping them to fifth in the SEC East and into a first round date with Arkansas.
Regardless, this result is a confidence booster, and a lack of confidence on the road was Kentucky’s biggest issue this season.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.