KNOXVILLE -- Bruce Pearl and his University of Tennessee men's basketball coaching staff threw a brilliant strike ball at John Calipari's third-ranked Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday night.
But the 12th-ranked Volunteers still left themselves with a 7-10 split.
That happens sometimes when you throw a light ball.
"We knew coming in that we had a good game plan -- a really good game plan," UT senior point guard Bobby Maze. "But Kentucky's a good team, and they just made some big plays down the stretch."
The Volunteers stunned Kentucky with a 3-2 zone defense than stunted the Wildcats for most of the night. UT held a one-point lead with less than 10 minutes left.
Kentucky rallied from that point, though. Freshmen point guards John Wall and Eric Bledsoe stood on the shoulders of their frontcourt's grunt work and delivered decisive, late blows in a 73-62 win.
Things stayed much more interesting for longer than most anticipated, though, thanks in large part to UT's defensive wrinkle. Calipari apologized to his team at halftime for being out-scouted.
Wall said Calipari walked into the halftime locker room and said, "My bad, guys."
Calipari's interpretation was similar.
"Let's give Tennessee credit here," Calipari said. "Bruce came in here, and they went to a 3-2 zone -- and I will be honest with you, we didn't work on it. I knew that they had it in their arsenal, but I didn't know that they would run it, because they didn't run it in any tapes that I had watched. In the first half, to be honest, we didn't look like we knew what the heck we were doing because we didn't. When we had the halftime, I told them, 'Guys, they are playing a 3-2 zone and that is not your fault. That is my fault. I am not blaming you but here is what we are going to do in the second half and how we will attack.'
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl yells to his players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)
"It's not their fault that we didn't prepare for three days, and that their coach did not understand."
You don't just win games during the season, though. You win them on the recruiting trail. And once Kentucky found a tiny crack against a tired UT defense, the outcome never seemed in doubt.
Wall scored six points and DeAndre Liggins added a transition steal and slam on the quick spurt that put Kentucky back in front. UT seniors Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince hit inside buckets to get the Vols back within 60-56, but Bledsoe then buried UT with eight consecutive points, courtesy of two corner 3-pointers and two free throws.
Prince praised Bledsoe's game-changing flurry but said the Vols had no regrets with their late strategy. Leaving the Wildcats open in the corner was by far the lesser of two evils, he argued.
"That's what really put them ahead, when (Bledsoe) made those shots against our zone," Prince said. "But we had to respect their big men so much, so you kind of just hope they miss from outside. You roll the dice on that, and you really can't do too much when he makes those kinds of shots."
Pearl made similar statements.
"It wasn't that we just weren't guarding Bledsoe. They had been reluctant to shoot that corner 3," Pearl said. "We were playing on that a little bit, and he knocked a couple down. We weren't pushing at the bottom, and those guys were wide open in the corners. They did a good job of knocking them down.
"Pick your poison. If I've got a chance to get beat by Eric Bledsoe from the 3 versus (DeMarcus) Cousins or (Patrick) Patterson in the inside, I think that's the risk we'll take."
That risk-taking is more mandatory than UT expected heading into this season. These Vols never had a gigantic frontcourt, but quantity and quality have diminished since versatile All-SEC senior forward Tyler Smith was dismissed from the program in January. Junior Brian Williams hasn't played back into the main rotation since recently returning from a nine-game suspension, and the 6-foot-10 center didn't fare well during his brief Saturday night cameo.
Kentucky's mammoth post presence is a particularly prickly challenge to face under those circumstances.
"Anybody is beatable. We never doubted we could beat them," Prince said. "You've just got to get the big guys in as much about trouble as you can, and not as involved in the game as you can. It's tough to do. Our zone worked. It held them for 40 minutes. A rebound here, rebound there, and it could have been different. They're just big kids, and they were just tipping it. On a couple of their tip ins, there was nothing we could do. We boxed them out, and eh, they'd just tap it over you.
"They rotate, not even to score points, but just to beat up on you."
UT tried to -- and generally succeeded at -- matching Kentucky's physicality, but three of the Vols' five charging fouls wiped away inside buckets.
Four days after attempting 22 less free throws than Vanderbilt, UT attempted 17 less freebies than Kentucky.
"Those (Kentucky) guys are so big that you have to go strong to the rim, and every time we went strong, it was a charge," Prince said. "If you don't go strong, they block your shot. If you go strong, it's a charge.
"What can you do?"
UT doesn't have much time to find answers. There are just six games left in the regular season, and the Vols host surging Georgia on Wednesday.
The Bulldogs beat up on UT in Athens earlier this season because their formidable frontcourt is the only one in the SEC comparable to Kentucky's.
"We've just got to man up; it's that simple," Prince said. "A lot of teams are just trying to beat up on us, because of our lack of height and size inside. The games we've lost have been mostly to bigger teams. We've just got to figure out a way to get more rebounds and just keep the guys off the glass. That's really what's hurting us right now, is not getting fast-break points and not getting out to run as much, because we're not getting as many rebounds. The way things are now, when you break it down, it's just tough. Our offense is not what it used to be.
"We're not worried about getting down. We're always confident in ourselves. I never let my teammates get down. It's just that some things, you can't control. I can't make anybody taller. I can't make anybody bigger. Sometimes, size just helps."
Chism, who added a sore hip Saturday night to his nagging ankle and knee injuries, said the Vols have a simple but difficult challenge.
"We're not going to get any bigger, so we just have to get better with what we have," Chism said.
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