As a sweet Valentine Day’s gesture, Kentucky kissed goodbye — at least for one night — its issues of recent vintage (lost leads), those associated with last month’s loss at Tennessee (failing to pass to low-post man Bam Adebayo) and even Malik Monk’s season-long aversion to rebounding
Kentucky routed Tennessee 83-58 despite not feeding Adebayo the ball much. Torrid three-point shooting made Adebayo muscling UT’s undersized front line a luxury the Cats did not need to indulge.
As for the well-documented trend of playing big leads into possession-by-possession tests of nerves, Kentucky led by double figures the final 28 minutes and 55 seconds.
UK Coach John Calipari said the performance was the result of the recent fresh start — labeled a rebooting.
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“I think you see us different defensively,” he said. “I think you see us different in transition defense. I think you see the difference offensively. Some of the rebooting, you’re seeing.”
Monk, who had one rebound in the last three games (103 minutes), grabbed a career-high eight. That equaled his total rebounds in the last five games.
“My brother (Marcus Monk) just told me to stay around the rim, and roam,” Monk said. “Roam around there and a couple (of rebounds) got to me.”
Monk also cited associate coach Kenny Payne’s urgings. “K.P. told me to go get 10 rebounds,” he said. “That’s what I was trying to do.”
The rebounding came after watching tape of himself not rebounding. Asked what that looked like, Monk said, “Like I’m scared. Scared of rebounding or scared to be in there. But I’m not. So I just had to prove that.”
The victory improved Kentucky’s record to 21-5 overall and 11-2 in the Southeastern Conference. The latter kept UK in a tie for first place with Florida, which won at Auburn. The third team tied for first going into this week, South Carolina, plays Arkansas on Wednesday.
Monk led UK with 20 points. Derek Willis added 16, De’Aaron Fox 13, Isaiah Briscoe 12 and Dominique Hawkins 10.
Adebayo had seven points and 12 rebounds, the latter one shy of a career high.
Its NCAA Tournament hopes flickering, Tennessee fell to 14-12 overall and 6-7 in the SEC.
“We were just really gosh-awful,” Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes said. “… Worst we played this year.”
When Kentucky played at Tennessee last month, Calipari said he threatened his players with a benching if they did not pass the ball to Adebayo in the low post.
That didn’t happen much in the first half of the rematch. But UK’s three-point shooting made it difficult to believe Calipari complained about Adebayo’s lack of touches.
Kentucky’s 10 three-pointers in the first half fueled a 47-32 lead at intermission. The Cats had previously made that many three-point shots in only four games this season.
Willis and Monk led the way. Willis made four in the first half. That doubled his total in the last four games (two for 10).
Barnes termed Willis’ scoring as decisive. The Vols had made containing UK’s forwards — Wenyen Gabriel and Willis — a priority.
“Our game in Knoxville, he and Gabriel were nonfactors,” Barnes said, “And we talked about it all week. That’s what we can’t allow happen, and we let it happen.”
Monk missed his first three shots, then hit five of his next eight in a 16-point first half. That sharp-shooting included four of five from beyond the arc.
His first made three might have signaled he’d have a good shooting game. It bounced off the rim three times before settling into the basket.
Arguably the most telling of Monk’s three-pointers came midway through the half. Briscoe anticipated a cross-court pass and made the steal. He dribbled down court, then fed Monk for a three from the left wing.
Kentucky, which fell behind 5-0 at the start, expanded its lead to as much as 17 points. No serious dwindling of a lead this time as the Cats kept Tennessee behind by double digits the final 8:55.
Adebayo did not get off a shot until he dunked a put-back with 8:26 left in the half. He took only one more shot: a dunk in the final minute.
It seemed unlikely Calipari threatened any benchings.
Tennessee made only 31 percent of its first-half shots, many of the misses flips that seemingly intended merely to reach the rim.
This brought Barnes’ big worry into play.
“My biggest concern will, has and always will be when we’re not making shots, can you stay in the game and figure out a way to win it?” he said on Monday. “And you can’t do that if you don’t defend at a very high level.”
Tennessee did not defend well, which continued into the second half.
Turnovers also fueled UK’s fast break. Kentucky’s lead grew to 59-40 on back-to-back scores five minutes into the second half.
Willis took a lob from Fox and dunked it to put the Cats ahead 57-40.
Then UK cashed in on another turnover. This time Fox drove to a layup that prompted a Tennessee timeout with 14:52 left.
Nothing changed as the half unfolded, which no doubt came as a comfort for UK fans who saw recent leads shrink to uncomfortable margins.
No. 13 Kentucky at Georgia
6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)