No. 20 Kentucky lets 21-point lead slip away, falls at Tennessee

AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
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Leading Tennessee 34-13 with 5:46 remaining in the first half, No. 20 Kentucky looked poised to not only rebound from their loss at No. 4 Kansas but do so in impressive fashion. Things didn’t stay that way however, as the Volunteers finished the half on a 23-8 run to close the margin to six. Rick Barnes’ team continued its run of good play in the second half, going on to beat the Wildcats 84-77 in Knoxville.

Just a couple days after playing one of their best games of the season and appearing to have turned a corner even in defeat, the young Wildcats showed that there’s still plenty of progress to be made.

The difference came at the foul line, where Tennessee outscored Kentucky 30-18 with Kevin Punter responsible for 10 of those points. Punter, who adjusted his shooting motion during the offseason, has been one of the nation’s most improved players. And against Kentucky the senior produced 27 points, and while he shot just 7-for-19 from the field Punter’s ability to create plays off the bounce applied pressure to Kentucky’s half-court defense.

Add in a double-double from Armani Moore, the 6-foot-4 forward who more than held his own against the bigger Wildcats with 18 points, 13 rebounds and four assists, and Tennessee was able to change the flow of the game late in the first half and build on that in the second stanza.

This is a big win for Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes, as he looks to provide some much-needed stability for a program that has lacked that in recent years. Beating Kentucky won’t make much of a difference on Tennessee’s résumé; at this point in the season they’ll need to win the SEC tournament to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. But it does provide tangible evidence to the players (not to mention recruits) and fan base that the program is headed in the right direction.

That doesn’t help Kentucky however, and the Wildcats are still having issues when it comes to defending without fouling. Some may be quick to point out the “quality” of the whistle in recent games, but it should be noted that sending opponents to the line has been an issue throughout the year for the Wildcats. Kentucky entered Tuesday ranked 241st in defensive free throw rate (40.1), too high for a team that plays half-court man-to-man defense most of the tim.

Be it defending without fouling or communicating consistently on the defensive end, these are adjustments that have taken longer for Kentucky to work through than some anticipated before the season began.

But how much longer can John Calipari afford to wait for the Wildcats to play with consistent focus, taking care of the “small” details that can be the difference between simply playing in the NCAA tournament and excelling once there? The personnel questions are what they are at this point, with the front court production being inconsistent and the guards led by Tyler Ulis having to do much of the heavy lifting.

But Kentucky had a chance to put their foot on Tennessee’s neck late in the first half, and instead they let the Volunteers back into the game. That proved costly in Knoxville, and as a result the Wildcats dropped to two games behind first-place Texas A&M in the loss column.