Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl, right, and center Brian Williams (33) watch in the second half of a 74-45 loss to Kentucky in an NCAA college basketball semifinal round game at the Southeastern Conference tournament on Saturday, March 13, 2010, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
NASHVILLE — Every time the Tennessee band played “Rocky Top,” the overwhelming mass of Kentucky fans inside Bridgestone Arena drowned them out with choruses of “Go Big Blue.”
Nearly every time the Volunteers took the ball into the paint, the Wildcats swallowed and then spit them back out toward the perimeter.
Then Kentucky started making 3-pointers.
Then the tired Vols lost their cool.
Then the game got out of hand.
Kentucky took one final UT flurry midway through the second half before punishing the Vols for a 74-45 win in a chippy Southeastern Conference tournament semifinal game Saturday.
The Vols trimmed their deficit to 45-39 on a Brian Williams layup with 9:27 left, completing an 11-4 run, but Kentucky responded with a 13-2 spurt. Then UT freshman forward Kenny Hall dunked. Then the Wildcats went on a 14-0 run.
“I’m speechless right now. I can’t even explain how I feel,” Vols senior point guard Bobby Maze said between stares at his locker-room floor. “It’s Kentucky-Tennessee, and it’s probably the last time I’ll play against those guys, and we lost by almost 30 points.
“This was embarrassing. This was unacceptable. This wasn’t Tennessee basketball.”
Second-ranked Kentucky (31-2), which lost at 15th-ranked UT (25-8) two weeks ago, was a nasty foe to face Saturday afternoon, and at least 85 percent of the arena wore blue. It looked a lot like Rupp Arena. It felt a lot like Rupp Arena.
The final score looked like a final score from Rupp Arena.
“Not many teams can match their size and strength and depth inside,” UT senior wing J.P. Prince said of the Wildcats. “You just have to be aggressive early, because they’re going to get a lot of calls based on reputation and respect from the officials. Hopefully you get the calls you need at the beginning of the game, and we didn’t. We got in foul trouble, and that definitely changed our game.
“We got put in some tough spots, and we didn’t make enough shots to get over the hump.”
The Vols were a frustrated bunch from the opening minutes Saturday. They repeatedly threw their hands in the air, and at least five of them spent portions of timeouts having discussions with referees.
UT senior forward Wayne Chism and Kentucky freshman center Daniel Orton were whistled for technical fouls with 8:01 left, with the Wildcats starting their game-ending run. UT backup point guard Melvin Goins and Kentucky freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins were given technical fouls with 3:33 left, and Goins ultimately was ejected for what officials considered inappropriate contact with Cousins while the big man set a screen.
“On my part, I don’t think it was a flagrant foul, and I think the call was severe,” Goins said. “He’s a bigger guy than me — a lot bigger. I was just trying to fight through the screen. That’s all I did. I don’t think it was anything above and beyond the physical play that was going on the whole game.
“I’m sorry to everybody that I got ejected, but I wasn’t doing anything but playing physically in a physical basketball game.”
Saturday’s intensity was something not seen — even in this intense rivalry — in years. Officials called coaches Bruce Pearl and John Calipari together at one point in the second half and ordered them to control their teams.
“I think we let emotions get in the way there at the end,” Goins said. “We should have controlled our emotions and kept our composure down the stretch.”
Some teammates, including Williams and sophomore guard Cameron Tatum, agreed with Goins. Other Vols made no apologies.
“I don’t think we got too intense,” Prince said. “They were intense, and I’m not going to let anybody push my team around. If you’re going to get in our face, we’re going to get back in your face.
“That’s just how it is. I just wish the refs would let us play a little more. I guess they had to do what they had to do, but they should let the players decide it.”
Sophomore guard Scotty Hopson, who ended a miserable three-day tournament by leading UT with 11 points, said the Vols “didn’t do anything that wasn’t done to us,” but he also called their reaction counterproductive to the cause — winning the game.
“This is a huge rivalry, and we wanted to win really badly,” Vols junior forward Steven Pearl said. “Everything was cool after the game — we both know we’re all competitors out here. But I think we both know that both teams crossed the line a little bit today, and we shouldn’t be doing that.
“Fortunately, though, the NCAA tournament will actually be a neutral environment, and both teams will get a fair shot. We had to be really special today to win this game, and we didn’t show up special at all.”
The Vols said fatigue wasn’t a factor down the stretch. Their coach wasn’t so sure.
“We had to exert a lot of energy against LSU and Ole Miss — two really good teams — and you needed to be a little bit fresher and a little bit more furious to be able to compete with Kentucky,” Bruce Pearl said. “In our offense, we just ... we got standing around too much. We didn’t cut hard. We didn’t screen hard. We didn’t work hard enough without the basketball, and as a result they jumped some passing lanes, and we turned the ball over much more in this game.
“And they turned those turnovers into a lot of points.”
The Vols will receive word of their NCAA tournament destination today. They hope for a No. 4 seed and relatively short trip for their opener, but Saturday’s lopsided finish won’t do them any favors.
“We’ve been surprised by the (selection) committee before, but I think we’re a solid 4,” Prince said. “But you never know until you see your name on the screen.
“As a senior, I’m just happy this wasn’t my last game. No one wants to go out like this, especially when you’ve won as many games as we have the past few years.”
Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.