LEXINGTON, Ky. — Jordan Bowden was 2 years old the last time Tennessee swept a Kentucky men's basketball team by winning both at home and on the road in the same season.
"No, I don't remember 1999," he said of that long-ago sweep late Tuesday night, just after his 13 points had hugely helped the Volunteers topple UK 61-59 for their second win over Big Blue this season. "But I know any time you win in Rupp (Arena), it's special. And this is definitely special."
It was special for a lot of reasons. For one, it solidifies the 15th-ranked Vols' hold on second place in the SEC, moving them to 18-5 overall and 8-3 in league play — a game and a half behind league leader Auburn (9-1) pending the Tigers' game tonight against Texas A&M.
For another, the Vols came from behind near the close of each half, surging ahead at the finish each period due to a nerveless Lamonte Turner 3-pointer. The first one gave UT a 27-26 halftime lead in one of those gross, grinding halves that made you wonder if this is what the game looked like when each made shot had to be retrieved from a peach basket before play could begin again.
Or as losing coach John Calipari lamented of a Big Blue bunch that's now lost four of its last seven games: "We had some spells that were so bad. That's what young kids do."
But it was what Turner did with 26 seconds to go, UK ahead by two, that showed what championship contenders do.relatedarticlethumbfacebook
The shot clock under 10, the offense seemingly bottled up, Turner dribbled the ball near the top of the key, at least 23 feet from the goal, UK's Quade Green somewhat on him but certainly not smothering him. Turner rose and fired. The shot swished, much like the three triples he'd hit in the opening half.
"I'm not scared of going back to the locker room if I miss that shot," said Turner, who led the Vols with 16 points. "I had a great first half (11 points). Bowden carried us after that."
Indeed, for all the gold discovered at the end of Turner's rainbows, it was a pivotal seven-point run by Bowden midway through a second half that kept the game tight. Then, with UK trying to get off a game-winner after Turner's triple, Bowden stole the ball, Admiral Schofield winding up with a dunk on the other end as the Vols survived and thrived in a place where they hadn't won since 2006.
"We've learned how important details are on defense," said Bowden, a Knoxville native. "We're getting better every week."
They are getting so much better heading into Saturday's game at Alabama that it's worth wondering if these Vols can't wind up with a No. 2 seed in the South and an opening NCAA tourney weekend in Nashville if they keep winning games like this.
Because as big as Turner's four treys were, as well as knocking down all eight of their free throws in the final half, the Vols won this game the way championships most often are won in any sport, with superior defense. They held UK to 21 percent on 3-pointers (3 of 14), forced 15 turnovers and outrebounded the taller Cats 32-30. They won points off turnovers by a 16-11 count and fast-break points by 10-6.
"Give Tennessee credit," Calipari said. "It looks like we've got it and they don't stop. They did what they had to. They made their free throws. They made that big 3."
The Vols have now won big road games at Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Iowa State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky and own neutral-site wins over Purdue and North Carolina State. Their only home loss is to Auburn. They out-tough you and outsmart you and outlast you.
"We're just a different team this year," said UT junior forward Admiral Schofield. "We've learned how to win."
Kentucky is a different team every year, overrun with one-and-done freshmen attempting to make the best of their single season in collegiate purgatory before their expected move to the NBA and its millions of dollars.
And most years, against reasonable odds, Calipari somehow guides them deep into the NCAA tournament, having reached the Elite Eight in six of his eight completed seasons.
But these Cats resemble those Cats in birth certificates only. They throw up more bricks from afar than former UT football coach Butch Jones. They can't guard off the dribble and they don't rebound it as well as they probably should for a team with five starters 6-foot-5 or taller. A similar-looking UK team landed in the NIT in 2013, and this one might also.
But Tennessee looks more and more certain to wind up as a No. 3 or 4 seed at the very least in the NCAA tournament. And once there, it might stick around awhile.
"We feel like if we can play defense it takes pressure off our offense," said UT coach Rick Barnes. "I do feel like we're getting better. We just kept saying to stay with it defensively and rebound the ball and we'll find a way to get something on the other end."
And that's just what Turner did before earning a postgame kiss on his head from forward Grant Williams, who hit eight of 10 free throws on his way to 10 points.
Said Barnes before heading home on a cold, icy night: "It's a team win. That's how we've done it all year."
Added Turner with a smile: "Any SEC road win is big, but winning at Kentucky is bigger."
Especially when it completes a sweep of the SEC's most storied program for the first time since 1999.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.