LEXINGTON, Ky. — Maybe this was inevitable, the top-ranked University of Tennessee men's basketball team's 86-69 loss to the fifth-ranked University of Kentucky inside Rupp Arena on Saturday night. You win 19 games in a row, there's bound to be a clunker here and there, especially with Big Blue in a big hurt after Tuesday's home loss to LSU.
For UT, this might have been a really nice résumé-stuffer to lock down a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But for the Wildcats, this game was probably do or die for everything from staying alive in the race to win the Southeastern Conference regular-season title to holding on to to their current projected No. 2 seed in the NCAA tourney.
So Kentucky, looking as sharp as it has all season, ran out to a 24-point lead in the second half. The Volunteers gamely cut it to 11 on multiple occasions, but they could get no closer in losing for the second time in 25 games and for the first time in SEC play after an 11-0 start.
"We wanted to play together as a team, not play one-on-one," UT coach Rick Barnes said afterward. "We didn't do that. We did things we hadn't done all season."
Indeed, leading the nation in assists with an average of 20 a game, the Vols were credited with but 11 against UK. They endured six blocked shots. Having hit more than 50 percent of their shots from the floor this season entering Saturday, UT hit but 40 percent against the Cats. Having connected on 37 percent of their 3-point attempts, they knocked down but seven of 25 (28 percent) against Big Blue.
Why, besides UK's pretty good, especially on defense?
Grumbled Barnes: "Most selfish we've been all year."
Maybe that's true or maybe that's Barnes trying to get a message to his team through the media.
But other than a remarkable performance by point guard Jordan Bone (8-of-13 from the floor and 3-of-4 from the 3-point line), no other Vol than Grant Williams, who almost always plays both well and selflessly (16 points, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals), mirrored his season stats.
"We settled some," Barnes said, perhaps looking at Admiral Schofield hitting but one of six 3-point tries while hitting six of 12 inside the arc and pulling down six rebounds.
"We had a chance to get a couple of stops but didn't."
No, what they did was watch the Cats run off the first 14 points of the second half after leading 37-31 at intermission. What they did was lift an overstuffed Rupp (24,467 fans) to decibel levels rarely seen among the most discerning, tough-to-arouse fans in the SEC.
The lead grew to 62-38 with 11:25 to play. No. 2 Duke had gone into Louisville five nights earlier, spotted the Cardinals 23 points with less time to play than this and somehow won.
Could UT do the same? Just like that, the Vols went on a 13-0 run to pull within 62-51. Maybe this would be Déjá Duke for the Commonwealth.
But unlike Louisville, Kentucky soon righted itself and UT was beaten.
The Vols can take some solace in the fact that these two meet again in Knoxville on March 2, where UT's fans — and there were probably more members of the Big Orange Nation in attendance than at anytime in Rupp's 42-year history — are sure to rival UK's full-throated crowd.
That said, on a night when Kentucky really didn't shoot it all that well from deep (38.5 percent) or the foul line (69.7 percent), the Wildcats' defense stymied the Vols throughout, especially around the basket, where Big Blue's big height advantage made most every shot within five feet an adventure. Beyond that, as Barnes noted, "When we went with the small lineup (meaning starting center Kyle Alexander was on the bench), P.J. (Washington) pretty much got whatever he wanted."
Actually, it seemed as if a multitude of Cats got whatever they wanted in the paint, where the home team enjoyed a 36-20 edge in points.
Yes, Washington led all scorers with 23, which meant for the seventh time in the past eight games he topped the 20-point mark. But freshmen Keldon Johnson with 19 points and Tyler Herro with 15 points and 13 rebounds artfully backed him up, as did graduate transfer Reid Travis, who finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.
"We've been telling our guys for 2 1/2 weeks that we needed to rebound the ball better," said Barnes. "We told them it would bite us and it bit us."
Still, it is but one game, and if it wakes the Vols up to what they need to improve on, it might wind up being a good thing, especially with trips to LSU and Auburn and that return date with UK still on the horizon.
Yet Barnes wasn't in much of a mood to see much positive in his first loss of 2019.
"It's not just about winning games," a frustrated Barnes said afterward. "We've got to get better."
Or at least better against Kentucky before March 2.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.