It was a battle of wills, and Tennessee was winning. The Vols were snatching more rebounds than the Wildcats at a two-to-one pace, which is why they had opened up a 22-13 lead on Kentucky with 10:37 left in the first half Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena. The Wildcats seemed powerless to stop the bigger, bulkier visitors.
“They’re a physical team,” John Calipari said of Tennessee. “They’ll bump and grind.”
Ten and a half minutes minutes later, the buzzer sent them to their respective locker rooms with the score an improbable 34-32, Kentucky.
Improbable, because Jarnell Stokes singlehandedly had outrebounded the Cats, 11-10. Improbable, because a UK team that has struggled at the free throw line for much of this season had hit all seven of its attempts. And improbable because a team Calipari says is not designed to win games from beyond the three-point line was five-of-12 from the arc at halftime.
“We're not a team that's going to shoot 25 threes,” Calipari said. “That's not who we are. We're a driving team. We're a post up team. We're a rebounding team. I want us to be a vicious defensive team so we can get out and run because we're fast. But if you jam us in, we will shoot threes.”
Tennessee worked its way to a 39-37 lead early in the second half, but the Wildcats, still struggling on the boards, kept throwing in triples and swishing free throws. They strengthened their defense and re-directed their offense and finally ground out a 74-66 win over the Volunteers.
The lesson learned?
“Probably bouncing back,“ Dakari Johnson said. “We had a tough loss at Arkansas. I think we played a real good all-around game for everybody.”
“That we just have to be tough,” said Andrew Harrison. “That we’re not going to bigger than everybody else and we have to find other ways to win.”
Johnson turned in a solid 16 minutes, scoring four points and grabbing four rebounds against the muscular Vols, who outrebounded Kentucky, 39-24. “That was a focus to us,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said, “to keep them out of the lane. You’re talking about one of the better rebounding teams in all of college basketball.” Mission accomplished.
The Volunteers pushed their weight around in the paint so effectively, they caused a Kentucky seven-footer to all but vanish. Willie Cauley-Stein disappeared for the second straight game, grabbing just three rebounds and hanging a doughnut in the scoring column in 19 minutes, prompting Calipari to turn to Johnson.
“He was terrific,” Calipari said.
“I just tried to be physical with them. I just tried to have fun out there,” Johnson said.
Andrew Harrison turned in perhaps his finest effort in a Kentucky uniform, with 26 points, three assists and a steal in 33 minutes – with no turnovers. Zero. From a point guard who handled the ball more than any of his other teammates. And he wasn’t satisfied.
“Just making better decisions,” is where Harrison said he has to improve. That, he said, and finishing a play after there’s contact, whether “fate intervenes” (Calipari-speak for an official’s call) or not.
There’s always room for improvement, but the twin who plays the point did little wrong against the Orange, especially in the second half, when the UK offense went through him, in lieu of Randle. Tennessee had re-doubled its defensive efforts on the Wildcats’ post player, causing the UK offense to go stagnant. So Calipari shifted the focus of Kentucky’s attack to the twin with the hot hand.
Andrew Harrison was perfect at the free throw line, nailing all 10 attempts. In fact, the three other UK players who made it to the line were perfect as well – except for his brother, Aaron, who missed one of his seven tries. And he’s going to hear about it for ruining what would have been a perfect afternoon, according to the guy who looks like him. “He’s gonna get it,” Andrew said.
Tennessee beat Kentucky at its own game – rebounding. The Volunteers finished with 39 to a measly 24 for the Wildcats, who had just seven offensive boards to 20 for UT, resulting in a 20-10 advantage in second-chance points. And still, the young Wildcats protected their home floor, where they’re 78-2 under John Calipari, 90-16 through the years against their SEC arch-rival.
They did it by shooting over a Tennessee defense that jammed the paint in an effort to limit Randle (18 points, only two rebounds, four turnovers). And they took advantage when they got to the line, instead of leaving points on the floor as they did in Fayetteville. Could there have been some new practice technique that paid off?
“Well, we did something new in the last two days, and it's something that is unique and something that I don't know if it's ever been done,” Calipari said. A-ha! most of his in the media room had to be thinking. Finally – Calipari is addressing a problem that seems to plague his teams most every year.
“We went in the pool and we put on those pool baskets, and we got them to get down and just start making them for the mental part of it,” the coach said. “It worked.”
“And if you believe that,” he said, “I've got great land to sell.”
We laughed. We had to.
“I had this whole room,” Calipari said. “You people...”
Well, come on. They hit 23 of 24 and the only miss came by one of their better free throw shooters. They got killed on the boards, but filled it up from downtown. Who saw any of that coming?
And now, they’re 3-1 in the SEC, with hot-shooting Texas A&M on the way – the same team that beat Tennessee in Knoxville last week. That’s a 9 pm. Tuesday game. And then Georgia comes to town, the same team that took Arkansas to overtime on Saturday – and won, staying perfect in the league.
Every night is an adventure in the SEC. “I've got all 18 , 19 year old kids,” Calipari said. “This is all new, how to finish a game.”
Saturday afternoon, they finished off Tennessee by making long
shots and free throws. On Tuesday, they’ll have to figure it out, all over again.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)