I guess Tennessee wasn’t scared of P.J. Washington after all.
Jordan Bone finished with a career-high 27 points and three assists while shooting 11-for-15 from the floor and 5-for-5 from three as the No. 7 Volunteers exacted their revenge on No. 4 Kentucky, 71-52, in Knoxville on Saturday afternoon.
The win keeps the Vols in a tie for first place in the SEC as No. 13 LSU won at Alabama this afternoon. Kentucky trails both of those teams by a game.
Grant Williams finished with 24 points and seven boards for Tennessee, outplaying his counterpart Washington, who had 13 points but was on the bench in foul trouble late in the first half as the Vols got some separation from Kentucky.
The last time these two teams playing, in Rupp Arena, Kentucky beat Tennessee, 86-69, and after the game, Kentucky freshman Tyler Herro told reporters that he thought the Vols “were scared of P.J. Washington.”
They got over that fear on Saturday.
Here are three things that we can take away from this game:
1. TENNESSEE GOT BACK TO THEIR DEFENSIVE ROOTS
Tennessee won a share of the 2018 SEC regular season title on the strength of their defense. They finished last season ranked sixth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and while they brought back essentially the same team from a season ago, that defense did not travel. Entering Saturday, Tennessee was sitting 36th nationally in that same metric, and that just has not been good enough for a team that wants to be contending for a national title.
On Saturday, they got back to those roots.
Kentucky scored just 24 points in the first half. They shot 6-for-26 from the floor in the first 20 minutes — Tyler Herro was the only Wildcat that made more than one first half field goal — including a stretch late in the half where Kentucky made just one of their last 14 field goal attempts. Tennessee’s guards were up in Kentucky’s young and flustered backcourt. By the time the game came to an end, Kentucky was shooting 31.8 percent from the floor, 5-for-19 from three and had committed 17 turnovers, good for a season-low 0.8 points-per-possession.
That’s the kind of defense this team played last season, and if this is the kind of defense they are going to play moving forward, then those of us dropping them out of the national title conversation might end up looking dumb in four weeks.
2. JORDAN BONE SHOT ALL OVER THE ‘TENNESSEE’S GUARDS AREN’T GOOD ENOUGH’ NARRATIVE
It’s hard to overstate just how good Bone was on Saturday afternoon.
He finished with 27 points. He shot 11-for-15 from the floor and made all five of his threes. He didn’t commit a single turnover while going up against Ashton Hagans pesky on-ball defense. He handed out three assists. He picked up a couple of steals of his own.
And that performance could not have come at a more opportune time.
Because, if we’re being honest, Tennessee really didn’t play all that well offensively.
Admiral Schofield posterized Nick Richards, but he finished the day just 3-for-13 from the floor and 0-for-6 from three. Lamonte Turner wasn’t much better, and while he did have out six assists, he also shot 2-for-10 from the field and 0-for-4 from three. Kyle Alexander spent basically the entire game on the bench in foul trouble. Jordan Bowden made a couple of shots, but it was far from his best game.
Bone scored nine of Tennessee’s first 19 points. He buried a couple of massive jumpers during the 17-6 surge to end the first half. He facilitated an offense that did not shoot all that well but that only committed five turnovers against a defense that has forced turnovers on nearly 20 percent of their defensive possessions this season.
There’s an argument to be made that he is the best guard in the SEC.
When he plays like this he is, and it’s what makes Tennessee a real threat to win a title.
3. DON’T OVERREACT TO THIS KENTUCKY LOSS
This was a revenge game.
This was a lesson to Tyler Herro that he probably shouldn’t run his mouth about teams like Tennessee.
This was a group of freshmen guards going into the cauldron that is Thompson-Boling Arena at the same time that their frontline of Nick Richards, E.J. Montgomery and P.J. Washington combined for 10 fouls and four made field goals without Reid Travis.
They aren’t as good as they were when they beat Tennessee in Rupp and they aren’t as bad as they were today.
The loss is disappointing, as it likely takes the Wildcats out of the SEC title picture, but this is still a team that has the horses to make a run in March.