When Kentucky played at Vanderbilt on Tuesday, Coach Billy Gillispie expected great things from freshman Darius Miller.
"I thought he would be Player of the Game," Gillispie said Saturday. "I really did."
The UK coach figured Vandy would blanket the Cats' leading scorer, Jodie Meeks, thus creating opportunities for others.
"I thought, if we win, he'd be the guy to make it happen as far as offensive production," Gillispie said.
Never miss a local story.
Four days after Vandy whipped Kentucky, Miller made Gillispie look clairvoyant, albeit a tad premature. His career-high 17 points helped UK beat Tennessee 77-58.
Miller, who also had a career-high six assists, foiled Tennessee's predictable plan to — duh? — contain Meeks, who scored a school-record 54 points in Kentucky's victory in Knoxville last month.
The Vols limited Meeks to 14 points, his lowest output since getting 13 against Indiana on Dec. 13. The nation's third-leading scorer (25.8 points per game) failed to make a three-pointer for the first time all season.
Yet Meeks' relatively quiet afternoon had little impact on Kentucky's chances to win.
For that, Gillispie thanked Miller and the other relative no-names serving as aides to Meeks and big man Patrick Patterson, who returned from a sprained ankle to score 19 points.
"That's the Darius Miller that we recruited," Gillispie said.
The UK coach said the implications could be long-lasting if the performance signals Miller's emergence as the sought-after third scorer to complement Meeks and Patterson. (And never mind Gillispie's earlier dismissal of the need for a third scorer.)
"It's great for a guy like him to have a bust-out game like that for what it can do for you for the remainder of the season," Gillispie said. "I thought he'd be the third-leading scorer during the course of the season."
After scoring the game's first 13 points, Kentucky never trailed in improving to 19-8 overall and 8-4 in the Southeastern Conference. The latter put the Cats in a three-way tie for first place in the Eastern Division.
Tennessee, which got little from its two players with double-digit scoring averages, fell to 16-10 and 7-5 in the SEC. Tyler Smith (17.6 ppg) and Wayne Chism (13.2 ppg) combined to shoot 5-for-23 (1-for-11 from three-point range) en route to a combined 16 points.
Tennessee made Meeks struggle to score (4-for-14 shooting, 0-for-7 from beyond the arc).
"We gave those other guys an opportunity to make shots, and they did," Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl said. "... You have to make the other guys beat you, and we did. And they did. They weren't able to do that against other teams."
Miller wasn't alone. Michael Porter tied a career high with three three-pointers. His nine points tied a career high against SEC competition.
Pearl noted the soothing effect on shooting that comes with a big lead. UK led by double digits for more than 22 minutes, including the final 17:15.
"It's one thing to take and make the shot in a close game," Pearl said. "It's another to take and make the shot when it's all going their way. It was all going their way from the beginning."
Miller acknowledged that it's easier to shoot without the pressure of absolutely having to make the shot.
"Oh, it's always a lot easier when that's the case," he said. "I think it's easier for everybody when that's the case."
This has not been a season without challenges for Miller. As the reigning Mr. Basketball who led Mason County to the state championship last March, he came to UK with expectations.
"I really don't think there was a lot of pressure," he said. "There's been a lot bigger pressure on other people. Coach said he wants 110 percent effort any time you're on the court. That was more pressure than just being from the state (of Kentucky)."
Opponents applied a form of pressure by playing off Miller and any other Cat not named Meeks or Patterson.
In high school, Miller got the Meeks treatment. Or as Miller said of the Vols' defense of Meeks, "They were there every single step."
As in earlier games, Miller and other Cats on the perimeter had room for patio furniture.
"Nobody was around me," Miller said of his 6-for-6 shooting (3-for-3 from beyond the arc). "There was nothing else I could do."
Unlike the game in Knoxville last month, Tennessee showed clear and ceaseless intent not to give Meeks much of anything. For instance, Meeks scored four first-half points (or 22 fewer than he had in the first 20 minutes in Knoxville).
Tennessee also met its goal of keeping Meeks off the foul line. He didn't shoot free throws until there was 18:03 left, giving Kentucky a 38-29 lead and helping ease the tension after Tennessee had closed the deficit to four points. He made a career-high 14 free throws in Knoxville.
Porter's third three-pointer widened Kentucky's lead to 48-33.
When Miller tied a career high with his second three-pointer, the crowd roared. It put the Cats ahead 57-38 with 11:40 left and signaled that UK had enough contributors this day to win without a Meeks scoring spree.
"For us to be at our best, those guys need to be there," Gillispie said. "They can't be just players out there. They have to make a lot of plays. They have to produce.
"That's not chiding them. That's just a fact."