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Date story published: Wednesday, February 14, 2007

KNOXVILLE -- Make that close but no cigars (plural).

For the second straight game, Kentucky showed a never-quit spirit by battling back from a double-digit deficit. But alas, UK also never quit turning the ball over or playing maitre d' defense (Can I show you to your basket?).

This generosity doomed Kentucky to an 89-85 loss at Tennessee last night.

In scoring 18 of his 24 points in the second half, Joe Crawford led a charge that saw UK erase a 16-point deficit.

But with a rousing victory within reach, the always inconsistent Cats coughed up the chance. Two ugly turnovers by veteran players (Crawford and Ramel Bradley) stalled the rally after Kentucky had tied it at 79.

"Guys panic," UK Coach Tubby Smith said of the shaky final minutes. "We have to find a way to play with more poise and not be in such a hurry."

Freshman Wayne Chism put Tennessee ahead for good with a layup at the 2:53 mark.

Fittingly, the go-ahead score came from short range. With UK's interior defense resembled a swinging gate, Tennessee had six dunks, 11 layups, three post-up baskets and two putbacks.

"We've really not defended well the last few games," Smith said. "We have to figure out why we're not defending well, especially in the post. The easy baskets are what hurt us. They just throw it in the post and score without being challenged. That makes it tough."

Freshmen Duke Crews (18) and Chism (16) combined for 34 points after scoring only 11 at Kentucky 16 days earlier.

UK center Randolph Morris, who contributed his eighth double-double of the season (14 points and 12 rebounds), took the blame for the poor interior defense.

"We didn't play our defensive principles," he said. "I personally let the ball into the post too easy and I didn't play physical. I only had one foul. That lets you know I wasn't as physical as I should have been."

Kentuckian Chris Lofton, who led Tennessee with 23 points, showed in the clutch that he's more than a shooter. After Chism's layup put Tennessee ahead for good, Crawford missed a three-pointer. Lofton chased down the rebound and fed teammate Ramar Smith for a fastbreak layup that put the Vols ahead 83-79.

Lofton, who came into the game having made 20 of 23 free throws against Southeastern Conference teams, made five of six in the final 30 seconds to clinch the victory.

Smith lamented that UK did not prevent Lofton from catching two inbounds passes in the final 12 seconds. But the Vols had to work hard to get him the first inbounds, throwing a risky pass over the pressing Cats. On the second, Lofton broke in front of Crawford.

"Chris is more likely to get the whistle," Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl said of the Vols' determination of inbounding to Lofton. "He's our All-American."

Tennessee improved to 18-8 overall and 6-5 in the SEC.

Kentucky fell to 18-7 overall and 7-4 in the SEC. The Cats will fall into a second-place tie with Vanderbilt if the Commodres beat last-place South Carolina tonight at Nashville.

A sudden burst of long-range shooting propelled Tennessee to a 40-30 halftime lead.

Kentucky limited the Vols to 8-for-21 shooting early, and held a 21-19 lead with less than seven minutes left in the half. Then Tennessee suddenly swished five straight shots -- four from three-point range -- to take control. That spurt sent UT to 25-for-46 shooting (54.4 percent) the rest of the game.

Reserve Jordan Howell began the burst with a three-pointer from the top of the key. It was only UT's second three to that point.

After an exchange of three-pointers, Lofton came alive.

With UK freshman Michael Porter guarding him, Lofton hit back-to-back three-pointers in a 24-second span. The second extended UT's lead at 33-26 and prompted a UK timeout with 3:55. As the Cats talked (beginning with a scolding of Porter presumably for leaving Lofton), the crowd sang Rocky Top.

Tennessee's lead reached its zenith at 51-35 less than four minutes into the second half.

With Bradley in foul trouble, Crawford took charge. He scored 18 of UK's 30 points in a stretch that brought the Cats one basket away, at 70-68.

"I saw Ramel come out," Crawford said. "I knew I had to put everybody on my shoulders and give everybody confidence."

The joyride ended at crunch time.