KNOXVILLE — The Kiddie Cats came here. The Wildcats departed.
"We grew up today," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said after a 64-58 victory at Tennessee on Sunday. "This is the first game this year where we played the way we started, and changed it."
A slow start nearly swallowed up freshman-oriented Kentucky. Visions of earlier road defeats must have flashed through the minds of UK fans as the Cats fell behind 7-0 barely three minutes into a first-half retreat that included two 10-point deficits.
But after halftime, the Cats threw metaphorical sand in Tennessee's face. A rousing second half gave UK the coveted second seed and first-round bye in this week's Southeastern Conference Tournament.
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"Right before we stepped on the court, we huddled," Terrence Jones said when asked to explain the change from first to second half, "and said, we're going to give 110 (percent) effort. We just played our best."
Calipari, who had to improvise after using all but one of his timeouts keeping Kentucky afloat in the first half, took no bows for brainy strategizing.
"I wasn't friendly, let me say that," the UK coach said of his halftime rhetoric. "It wasn't about executing. It was about competitive spirit."
UK outscrapped Tennessee with second-chance opportunities accounting for four of the final eight points. The Cats also held Tennessee without a basket in the final 3:26.
Making this convergence of clutch play all the sweeter was that it came without spark plug DeAndre Liggins, who fouled out with 3:26 left and Kentucky clinging to a 56-55 lead.
Darius Miller, who played the final 9:31 with four fouls, swished a three-pointer to ease the tension. That made the chewing-out from Calipari a faded memory.
"My lack of intensity," Miller said in explaining Calipari's first-half ire. " ... I wasn't playing with a lot of intensity. He thought I wasn't playing physical enough. And I agreed with him.
"I think that had a big part of the game where I picked it up and so did the rest of the team."
Freshmen Brandon Knight and Jones sealed the victory by making five of six free throws in the final 62 seconds.
The victory improved UK to 22-8 overall, 10-6 in the SEC and 1-5 in league road games decided by six or fewer points. The No. 2 seed from the Eastern Division means a second-round game Friday against either Mississippi or South Carolina.
Tennessee, which fell to 10-8 at home this season, finished the regular season at 18-13 overall and 8-8 in the league. The Vols, who became the fifth seed from the Eastern Division, will play against Louisiana State in Thursday's first round.
UK had many heroes. Knight shook off a poor first half to lead the scoring with 19 points, 17 of which came in the second half. Miller loomed large with 15 points. Jones added 15 points and 12 rebounds.
Freshman Tobias Harris led Tennessee with 18 points. Scotty Hopson, who made only two of 10 shots, added 13 points.
For the sixth time in eight SEC road games, Kentucky trailed at halftime. This time the margin deficit was 29-22.
"How in the world were we only down seven," Calipari said. "We should have been down 15-18."
■ Jones and Knight, the team's leading scorers, combined to make only two of 15 shots.
■ Foul trouble helped limit Josh Harrellson to no points and no rebounds.
■ UK made only eight of 28 shots (28.6 percent) and not even half its free throws (five of 11).
Tennessee suffocated Kentucky with high pressure man-to-man defense. The Vols led 29-20 and had a chance to return the lead to double digits. But Hopson missed a driving shot with nine seconds left. That gave UK enough time for Knight to hit a floater in the lane with one second left. His only first-half basket in six shots set the halftime score.
"Just to see it go through the net" helped going into the second half, said Knight, who hit three three-pointers inside the first four minutes.
The Cats took their first lead on a Doron Lamb three-pointer with 16:59 left.
The Cats made their first four three-point shots of the second half. But it was a dunk by Miller — only his second of the season — that got the UK lead to 40-33 with 13:09 left.
It was the kind of assertive second-half play that propelled Kentucky to victory.