KNOXVILLE -- The capacity crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena was loud, the hosts were playing well and the highly touted freshman was dazzling in his debut.
The ingredients were all there for Tennessee's basketball Volunteers to upset second-ranked Kentucky, but a six-minute drought late in the second half dashed that.
The Wildcats erased an eight-point deficit and scored eight consecutive points in a 65-62 Southeastern Conference road win Saturday afternoon.
"You have to give them credit," first-year UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. "They did a good job defending, and that's what good teams do. Credit goes to those guys."
UT's Kenny Hall made a layup to tie the game at 54 with 6:58 remaining, when the Wildcats began their winning surge. The Vols had seven empty trips, which included two missed 3-pointers, three misses in the lane and two turnovers. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist made a key 3-pointer that put Kentucky up 58-54, and Anthony Davis swished a hook shot to cap the run with 53 seconds left.
Two days after taking 20th-ranked Mississippi State to the final possession on the road, the Vols (8-9, 1-2) couldn't replicate the upset of Florida a week earlier.
"You see the improvement because I guess [according to] you guys and everybody we weren't supposed to be in that game," said Cameron Tatum, who led Tennessee with 16 points. "I don't know how much we're supposed to lose by, but nobody really gives us a chance to compete against these teams. We fought hard. We had the game and just made a couple of lapses."
The Vols led by six at halftime, and Jeronne Maymon's three-point play gave them their largest lead (47-39) with 13:05 left in the game. The Vols defended Kentucky, a team stocked with future NBA lottery picks, the way Martin demands and showed no fear pounding the ball inside against the long-armed, 6-foot-10 Davis, who anchors the nation's best shot-blocking team.
Throw in the boost freshman Jarnell Stokes provided in his debut, and UT seemed poised for another upset.
A five-star recruit from Memphis who picked UT in December and enrolled this month, Stokes entered the game at the 11-minute mark of the first half and made an immediate impact. In his first rotation alone, he made a pretty hook shot running across the lane, nailed a jumper and drew an offensive foul on Terrence Jones, each time drawing boisterous reactions from the home crowd.
For a player who was supposed to be starting his final semester of high school, Stokes was not intimidated by Kentucky's talented front line.
"I would have never came out if I didn't feel like I could perform at a great level," Stokes said. "[Martin] made the decision on his own. After the last game at Mississippi State, he said, 'A scared man is a dead man,' but he also said, 'Be careful what you're getting yourself into and be ready when your name is called.' He didn't say that directly toward me, but I felt as if he said it indirectly toward me.
"That's been my mindset going into this game."
Stokes totaled nine points and four rebounds in 17 minutes basically while learning on the fly how to play Martin's preferred style of defense. The coach instructed the smooth big man to attack when guarded by one defender in the post and pass when the Wildcats sent a second defender. Twice Stokes found open players off double teams, demonstrating his natural feel for the game.
"I think it was really him being really hungry to play, and I thought the time was right to put him in," Martin said. "We had one of those substitutions to just get him in, get a feel for the flow, try to go right to him. I thought he did a good job accepting the challenge."
Stokes and Maymon, who had 15 point and 10 rebounds, give the Vols have a bruising frontcourt tandem on which to build the rest of this season.
"I was really proud of how aggressive he was right out of the gates," Maymon said. "I saw fight; I saw a dog; I saw hunger in him. He's going to be a consistent spark for us. It's going to give us another presence in the interior. It's just going to solidify us as a front line."
The freshman tandem of Kidd-Gilchrist (17 points and 12 rebounds) and Davis (18 points, eight rebounds and four blocks) led Kentucky, with Jones adding 10 points in 24 foul-plagued minutes.
Last-minute 3-pointers from Tatum and Skylar McBee cut UT's deficit to two, but Darius Miller calmly sank two foul shots with 19 seconds left to ice the game.