Eric Bledsoe found the soft spot in Tennessee's surprising zone defense and had his best scoring game in a month as Kentucky beat the Volunteers 73-62 Saturday night.
Bledsoe, who had missed his previous 11 three-point attempts by midway through the first half, led Kentucky to victory with his second-half sharpshooting. Bledsoe's three-pointers from the right and left corners fueled a 20-4 breakout that finally put away 12th-ranked Tennessee.
Bledsoe's 16 points marked the most he's scored since getting 25 at Florida on Jan. 12. He had been 8-for-28 from beyond the arc against Southeastern Conference teams before finding his spot in the corners.
Tennessee's 3-2 zone, which marked a radical departure from the Vols' preferred man-to-man, left the corners open.
Never miss a local story.
"It's not that we weren't guarding Bledsoe," Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl said. "They'd been reluctant to shoot the corner three. So we were playing off it a little. It's a risk you take. Obviously, he made us pay."
Tennessee's zone helped hand DeMarcus Cousins his first game with less than 10 points since North Carolina on Dec. 5. Having scored 10 or more points in 16 straight games and in all but two games this season, Cousins fell short, in part, because he made only one of eight free throws. He did grab 12 rebounds.
Kentucky improved to 24-1 overall and 9-1 in the Southeastern Conference.
Tennessee fell to 18-6 overall and 6-4 in the SEC. Bobby Maze led the Vols with 15 points. Melvin Goins had 14 points. Wayne Chism, who played 30 minutes despite a sprained ankle sustained at Vanderbilt earlier in the week, added 12.
Two DeAndre Liggins free throws with 23.9 seconds left in the first half gave Kentucky a 30-29 lead at intermission. That marked the Cats' smallest halftime lead in SEC play since trailing 35-34 against Georgia in the conference opener.
In previous SEC games, Kentucky had enjoyed an average halftime lead of 40.6-28.2. And the way this game began, it appeared to be business as usual.
Helped by three Tennessee turnovers before the first television timeout, UK zipped to a 6-0 lead. The crowd roared.
Then for much of the rest of the half, it was more quiet than earlier in the day when UK fans filled Rupp Arena for the ESPN GameDay show. UK Coach John Calipari acknowledged that the Vols' 3-2 zone surprised his team.
"We didn't look like we knew what we were doing because we didn't," he said.
Chism made a big difference early. Because of a sprained ankle, he did not start for the first time in 40 games dating back to last season.
To get Chism ready, Tennessee borrowed the same equipment the Indianapolis Colts used to get defensive end Dwight Freeney ready for the Super Bowl.
It must have worked because Chism entered the game with 16:38 left in the first half and hit a three-pointer 31 seconds later for Tennessee's first points.
That basket from their leading SEC scorer (16.1 ppg) steadied the Vols.
With Chism scoring 10 first-half points, Tennessee stayed close. But he went down with an apparent hip injury at the 1:13 mark.
While the players waited as medical staffers tended to Chism, Cousins and Maze picked up technical fouls. For Cousins, it was his fourth technical of the season. In this nip-and-tuck game, it seemed a bad time to get too emotional. Calipari sent Cousins to the bench.
Trailing 52-50 with nine minutes left, Kentucky went on its 20-4 run.
After Wall's two free throws put UK ahead 54-52 with 8:36 left, Liggins stole a faulty Tennessee exchange and sped to a fast-break dunk.
A flurry by Bledsoe gave Kentucky its first double-digit lead. Within a minute, he hit three-pointers from the right and left corners to give the Cats a 66-56 lead with 4:57 left.
Those shots marked Bledsoe's first game since Indiana on Dec. 12 with more than two three-pointers.
It also made for a huge lead in this grinding game.
Former UK standouts Chuck Hayes and Jodie Meeks sat at courtside.
Hayes (Houston Rockets) and Meeks (Milwaukee Bucks) were on the NBA All-Star break.
Majors attends game
Former Tennessee football great and coach Johnny Majors is in Rupp Arena to watch the Vols play Kentucky.
He said it's the first game he's seen in Rupp since the classic 1985 national championship game between Georgetown and Villanova.
Majors, who sat behind the UT bench, said he grew up in Lynchburg, Tenn., as a Kentucky fan. He fondly recalled his father taking him and his brothers to Nashville to watch UK play Vanderbilt in the 1948-49 season.