Vols’ 25-game home winning streak ends as Wildcats ‘wanted to win more’

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee’s Uros Plavsic, right, scored a career-high 19 points and battled Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, left, for much of Saturday’s Southeastern Conference basketball game inside Thompson-Boling Arena, but Tshiebwe’s 15 points and 13 rebounds helped the Wildcats pull off the 63-56 upset.

KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee Volunteers came to honor a shooting legend Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.

They forgot about the glass.

On an afternoon when Chris Lofton, the top 3-point shooter in program history, had his No. 5 jersey retired and elevated to the rafters, the fifth-ranked Vols were no match physically for longtime rival Kentucky. The Wildcats pulled out a 63-56 upset by posting a staggering 43-23 rebounding advantage, with senior forward and reigning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe racking up 15 points and 13 rebounds in 39 minutes.

"The difference in this game was rebounding," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "They did whatever they wanted to do on the boards. With what they shot from the floor and from the 3-point line, that's good enough for us to win most games. We still have too many guys who think offense as opposed to understanding the role they've got to play on the team, but give them credit.

"They thoroughly beat us on the boards. I think Tshiebwe outrebounded our entire front line if you count it up."

Tshiebwe's 13 boards did indeed top the combined eight from Tennessee starting forwards Olivier Nkamhoua, Julian Phillips and Uros Plavsic. Throw in Vols reserve forwards Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka, and it was a 13-13 draw.

Tennessee didn't exactly light it up from a shooting standpoint, either, connecting on 40.4% of its shots and 14.3% of its 3-point attempts in falling to 14-3 and 4-1 in Southeastern Conference play. The Vols, who were anywhere from 12- to 14-point favorites entering Saturday's ESPN-televised showdown, had their 25-game home winning streak scissored.

The streak began following a 70-55 loss to Kentucky on Feb. 20, 2021.

Needless to say, it was a much-needed win for the Wildcats, who improved to 11-6 overall and 2-3 league play despite not having the services of senior guard Sahvir Wheeler due to a shoulder injury. Kentucky was humiliated 78-52 at Alabama last weekend and lost 71-68 inside Rupp Arena on Tuesday night to rebuilding South Carolina under first-year coach Lamont Paris.

"I haven't lost any faith in these guys," Wildcats coach John Calipari said, "and all you who are shooting arrows and bullets? I've got bazooka holes in my body. They go right through. It is what it is. You can be mad, happy or sad, but I've got a good team.

"Today, we defended and fought like my teams normally do, and we haven't been that to this point."

Tennessee entered with a plus-9.94 rebounding margin per game that led the SEC, while Kentucky ranked third at plus-7.38.

Plavsic, the former Hamilton Heights standout, had only three rebounds but amassed 19 points on 9-of-11 shooting in 25 physical minutes against Tshiebwe. Plavsic was averaging 14 minutes per game before Saturday.

"We knew it was going to be like that coming into the game, because we know what he is about and the way he plays," Plavsic said, "but I still feel like I could have done a better job guarding him. He had four offensive rebounds, and some of them were against me."

Plavsic scored Tennessee's first six points of the second half, with his short jumper over Tshiebwe with 16:07 left pulling the Vols within 35-32. With less than a minute to play, however, and the Vols trailing 58-56, Zakai Zeigler missed a layup and Plavsic missed the putback attempt before committing a foul on Tshiebwe.

Tennessee missed four shots in the final minute, while Kentucky was 5-of-6 on free throws.

"The biggest thing for us is that we came in saying low turnovers and that we've got to outrebound them," Calipari said. "In the games they've lost, they got outrebounded. The second thing we did is that we had to make a choice: Do we let the big boy go and try to score baskets, or do we try and trap?

"At one point, I almost went back, and the staff said, 'Don't you dare. They can beat us with the three, but they can't make enough twos,' so we let them have their way in there, and they did. He did miss one late, which was a big one for us."

The 19 points by Plavsic, a 7-foot-1, 265-pounder from Serbia, marked a career high.

"Those guys battled, and Kentucky did what most people do," Barnes said. "They tried to take away the perimeter guys and let us score in there, whether it was throwing it into him or with layups. We had drives to the rim that we couldn't capitalize on, but I thought Uros played as hard as he could play."

Zeigler and Santiago Vescovi combined on 7-of-25 shooting, including 1-of-9 from 3-point range. Nkamhoua and Phillips combined for more fouls (seven) than points (four).

Tennessee scored the game's first eight points, getting layups from Plavsic, Nkamhou and Vescovi off a steal before a Phillips putback at the 17:25 mark capped the opening surge. The Vols then went 5:24 without scoring, and the Wildcats finally got going, as a pair of CJ Fredrick 3-pointers staked them to a 13-10 lead at the under-12 timeout.

"Me and Jonas and Zakai came in, and we didn't do our job," Vols senior guard Josiah-Jordan James said. "We didn't execute on offense or defense. We gave them too many second-chance points and let them get confident."

Said Calipari: "In the first timeout, I said, 'We're fine. We got great looks. Just start knocking them down.'"

A Vescovi 3-pointer with 4:36 before halftime put Tennessee back up 23-21, but the Wildcats closed the half on a 12-3 run for a 33-26 advantage at the break. Tshiebe scored half of Kentucky's points in that stretch on two jumpers and a dunk.

The Wildcats grabbed 23 rebounds to just 10 by the Vols in the first 20 minutes.

"They just wanted to win more," James said. "For 40 minutes, they were more aggressive and more physical, and you lose games when you don't play to win. It's tough, because we pride ourselves on being the toughest team."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.