Playing uphill all night, Kentucky seemed to get the break it needed to take charge, however belatedly.
Isaiah Briscoe stole the ball and cruised toward an uncontested layup sure to reduce UK’s nine-point deficit. Except Briscoe missed. Coach John Calipari sunk back into his chair.
“You’re kind of like, ‘Are you OK?’” Calipari said after an 82-80 loss at Tennessee. “Because I’ve never seen that.”
It was that kind of game. Kentucky had many of its familiar freshman moments. Bad passes. Too-fancy-by-half whirling shots. De’Aaron Fox, who returned from the turned ankle last week, had his share.
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Then Kentucky remembered that idea of Bam Adebayo demanding the ball. Whether he demanded it or not, Adebayo got it again and again in the second half.
Actually, Calipari said he ordered UK players to pass to Adebayo.
In a bit of gallows humor, Calipari related what Adebayo apparently facetiously said to his coach.
“‘You may want to tell them to pass me the ball,’” Calipari said the big man said to him.
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough: Adebayo’s dominance, ironically the missing ingredient in UK’s loss at Tennessee last year, nor the return of Fox (17 points) nor a career-high 14 rebounds from Isaiah Briscoe nor Malik Monk’s 25 points.
Tennessee’s victory Tuesday night seemed a testament to a young Kentucky team that couldn’t get out of its own way.
“A great learning experience,” Calipari said with hope in his voice. The lesson the UK coach wanted his team to learn?
“Doing what’s right for the team might not be right for you,” he said.
Kentucky had 33 assists against Arizona State in November, but only 14 against Tennessee. “Next week it might be seven,” Calipari said. “You’ve got to pass the ball to each other.”
Kentucky, which had shot 50 percent or better in seven straight games, struggled against Tennessee. Calipari suggested UK’s 41.7 percent (fourth worst of the season) reflected not getting the ball to Adebayo enough and holding on to it too much instead of passing.
The Cats fell to 17-3 overall and 7-1 in the Southeastern Conference.
Tennessee, which beat a ranked opponent for the first time in six tries, improved to 11-9 overall and 4-4 in the SEC.
Robert Hubbs III led Tennessee with 25 points. Admiral Schofield added 15.
Tennessee started only one player taller than 6-foot-5. But the Vols had the width to combat Adebayo.
“Size does not affect Tennessee,” Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said earlier this season. “They have one of the shortest teams in the country, but they are wide, they are physical and they are athletic. . . .They play the right away.”
For only the second time this season, Kentucky trailed at halftime. The Cats also trailed 49-45 against UCLA.
Poor shooting contributed to Kentucky’s 39-34 halftime deficit against Tennessee.
The Cats made only 11 of 32 shots in equaling their lowest first-half point total of the season (34 against Michigan State). The misfiring extended to the three-point line (two of 13) and the free-throw line (six makes in the first 11 attempts).
The poor shooting even included Monk, the SEC’s leading scorer. He made only one of six three-point shots, the misses including the half’s final shot.
If the plan was to establish Adebayo in the post early and often, it did not materialize in the first half. He got off four shots and scored six points.
Monk, who was UK’s only double-digit scorer in the first half, had 14 points. But he needed 10 shots to get there.
Kentucky led by six points early. But Tennessee stayed close, in part because of ball security. The Vols committed only one turnover in the first 15-plus minutes and finished the half with three.
This shut off Kentucky’s transition offense. UK had only two fast-break points in the half.
“I think taking care of the ball is one of the most important things . . . ,” Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes said of Monday. “Teams that turn the ball over least, and rebound, win most of the games.”
Tennessee had a 23-22 rebounding lead at halftime.
Tennessee’s halftime lead was the product of winning the final two minutes. Lamonte Turner’s three-pointer put the Vols ahead 37-32 with 1:27 left.
After Briscoe missed a driving shot (part of a one-for-six shooting half), Hubbs dunked in transition to make it 39-32.
UT fans roared as UK called time with 59.6 seconds left. Monk, who had gone to the bench less than a minute earlier after leaving the ball behind as he started a drive, was rushed back onto the floor.
Kentucky’s intentions in the second half became clear almost immediately. The Cats fed Adebayo the ball in the post with its first possession. He scored easily to begin back-to-back UK scores that reduced the deficit to 41-38.
To borrow a word from Associate Coach Kenny Payne, the Cats looked discombobulated. Wenyen Gabriel shoved Lew Evans, who flopped to encourage an offensive foul.
Monk missed two more shots. Then Derek Willis threw up a weak flip shot.
Tennessee led 50-40 with less than 16 minutes left.
Five minutes later, Briscoe missed an uncontested layup after stealing the ball. He could have doubled UK’s fast-break point total by making the shot. With Tennessee having just committed only its fifth turnover, it didn’t seem many more such chances would appear.
Kentucky made it a one-possession game four times in the final 99 seconds. But the Cats could not get the lead. Nor, Calipari said, did UK deserve to get the ball.
“Tennessee was better,” he said. “They deserved to win. It would have been a shame” if Kentucky won.
No. 2 Kansas at No. 4 Kentucky
6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)