KNOXVILLE-Three times a Tennessee player had a hand on a defensive rebound in the final two minutes.
All three times the ball ended back in the hands of the guys in blue.
The Volunteers let a first-round bye in the Southeastern Conference tournament later this week slip away in the waning moments of 64-58 loss to visiting Kentucky on Sunday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"We had a couple of chances where we got stops and couldn't secure a rebound," UT coach Bruce Pearl said after the Vols (18-13, 8-8 SEC) lost their eighth home game of the season, the most since the 1994-95 season. "From that standpoint it was disappointing that we never made that last play to maybe give ourselves a chance to come back and win the game."
Kentucky (22-8, 10-6) won just its second conference road game of the season to earn a bye in the SEC tournament. UT will play Arkansas at 7:30 on Thursday night at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The winner would play SEC champion Florida on Friday.
With UT down by three and less than two minutes left, Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones (15 points, 12 rebounds) missed 3-pointers on consecutive Kentucky possessions, but Josh Harrellson and Jones each came up with loose rebounds.
After Knight and Scotty Hopson, who scored nine of his 13 points at the free-throw line after making just two of his 10 shots, traded a pair of free throws, UT knocked a rebound of a Darius Miller (15 points) miss out of bounds with 18.5 seconds left.
"They beat us to 50-50 balls," said Tobias Harris, who led the Vols with 18 points and six rebounds. "They outhustled us toward the end of the game, so that was a key for the game right there."
Brian Williams, UT's 6-foot-10 senior center, missed his second consecutive game with a back injury. The Vols could have used their leading rebounder in a game where the Wildcats scored 16 points off 14 offensive rebounds and won the battle on the glass 38-31.
"I wouldn't even begin to make excuses," Pearl said. "We've got enough guys out there that can rebound the basketball with two hands or get on the floor for a loose ball."
Said Harris: "We could've used him out there rebounding and on defense, especially at the end of the game [when] we didn't get those rebounds and that's what basically killed us. That's where the game changed from us coming back and them establishing and keeping their lead alive. That's been the story of the season, basically."
Knight missed his first five shots and scored his first points right before halftime after Hopson missed on a drive with too much time left. That basket ignited Knight and the Wildcats, who made six of their first eight shots and their first five 3-pointers of the second half on an 18-4 run that turned a seven-point halftime deficit into a seven-point lead.
"It was a tough because a lot of calls didn't go our way to start [the half]," Harris said. "We got rattled and we got frustrated as a team and we shouldn't have done that."
Knight went on to score 17 of his 19 points after halftime.
"Obviously he raised up," Pearl said, "and you can see what a special talent he is, what a special player he is. He made some huge shots, made some real big plays."
UT stayed in the game by scoring 15 points at the foul line, taking one less free throw (17) than field goal (18) in the second half. Kenny Hall, who had six points and six boards in a season-high 21 minutes, made a hook shot that briefly gave UT a 52-51 lead before Kentucky scored five straight points.
"The game was right there," Harris said. "We had it. A couple of plays didn't go our way and we just couldn't finish it out."