By Jimmy Hyams
Tennessee honored a hero Saturday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena.
But the highly favored Vols couldn’t find a hero to subdue a struggling Kentucky team.
Thanks to resounding rebounding, a huge free throw advantage and tenacious defense, Kentucky won its first true road game of the season, turning back fifth-ranked Tennessee 63-56 before a sellout crowd of 21,678.
Tennessee had won 25 in a row at home (12 against SEC opponents), five of the last seven UK meetings in Knoxville and 19 of the last 20 against SEC foes. But, despite an 8-0 start, Tennessee suffered its first conference loss of the season to a reeling Kentucky team.
The Wildcats lost earlier in the week at Rupp Arena to South Carolina, which lost by 43 at home to UT. They were routed at Alabama. They weren’t playing good defense. And they were down two starters.
All that didn’t matter as Kentucky won the battle of the boards 43-23, made 22 of 25 free-throw attempts (compared to UT’s 7 of 10) and held UT to 3 of 21 shooting from 3-point range, a paltry 14.3%. UT had out-rebounded SEC opponents by 14.5 per game.
“They just wanted to win more,’’ said Tennessee senior Josiah Jordan-James, who had five points, five rebounds and four assists. “They were more aggressive, more physical.’’
Vols 7-1 center Uros Plavsic, who had a career-best 19 points on 9 of 11 shooting, went toe-to-toe with Kentucky All-American Oscar Tschiebwe (15 points, 13 rebounds) but it wasn’t enough.
“It felt like we were out-physicaled out there,’’ Plavsic said. “Their team effort was better than our team effort.’’
Tennessee entered the game as a 12-point favorite, only the second time in series history the Vols were favored by double digits.
The Vols were also motivated by UT retiring the No. 5 jersey of former All-American Chris Lofton, a Kentucky native who as snubbed by the Wildcats but became one of the greatest 3-point shooters in SEC history.
Allan Houston and Candace Parker and Tyler Smith and Dane Bradshaw and several other Lofton teammates were in the house, hoping for a Tennessee victory.
Lofton even urged his team at halftime to “finish this with a win.’’
But it wasn’t to be. In part because the Vols were pathetic shooting from 3-point range. In part because of the rebound differential.
And in part because the Vols couldn’t buy a layup, if it wasn’t shot by Plavsic. They bricked at least eight bunnies.
Zakai Ziegler, who missed two days of practice, missed at least four layups and scored just six points on 3 of 12 shooting.
Santiago Vescovi missed a couple of layups and finished with 13 points on 4 of 13 shooting, 1 of 6 from beyond the arc.
“We missed a lot of shots at the rim,’’ said a scratchy-throated Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, who lost his voice yelling during the game.
“But the difference in the game was rebounding. I mean, they did whatever they wanted to on the boards.’’
Two Tennessee starters were virtual no-shows. Freshman Julian Phillips had more fouls (four) than points (two) or rebounds (three). Olivier Nkamhoua, who had a two-game stretch of hitting 15 consecutive field-goal attempts, also had more fouls (three) than points (two) or rebounds (two).
While Barnes praised Plavsic, he said Kentucky’s game plan was to guard the perimeter and “let us score’’ inside.
Kentucky coach John Calipari backed that up. But he second guessed himself during the game.
“Do we let the big man score baskets?’’ Calipari asked himself at one point.
Before he altered his strategy, his assistants talked him out of it.
“They can beat us at the 3-point line,’’ Calipari reasoned. “They can’t beat us with twos.’’
Calipari figured the contest would be physical.
“Both coaches made it a slugfest,’’ said Calipari, now 20-15 all-time against the Vols. “You gonna back down? Neither team backed down.’’
Kentucky certainly backed down during a 26-point loss at Alabama and the 3-point home loss to South Carolina.
But as Calipari said after the UT win: “We defended and fought like my teams normally do.’’
It wasn’t normal to see Kentucky unranked, 10-6 overall and 1-3 in SEC play. Heck, the Cats weren’t even in Joe Lunardi’s 68-team NCAA tournament bracket. They had an NCAA net of 63 and a defensive efficiency rating of 93.
And they had the Big Blue Nation ripping them.
To counter the negative outside noise, Calipari took away the players phones and iPads and any other technology they had Friday night. He said the players looked lost at breakfast the next morning, unable to peak at twitter or TikTok or InstaGram.
How did Calipari handle the criticism? He watched The Waltons and documentaries about Alaska.
But he did admit: “I had one foot on the panic button, but I didn’t have two.’’
He can take that one foot off.
And he can probably sleep better tonight.
As one media member said as Calipari left the podium, “Good night, John Boy.’’