Date story published: Monday, January 29, 2007
Tennessee played without Chris Lofton, the league's leading scorer. Kentucky staged a Lofton-like shooting spree.
Hence, Kentucky beat Tennessee 76-57 yesterday.
UK made seven of its first 10 three-point shots in the second half to break open a close game. Four of those bombs came in a 15-0 run that built a 67-48 lead with less than five minutes left.
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Without Lofton, who missed a second straight game because of a sprained right ankle, Tennessee could not keep up or counter.
"The key for us was when Kentucky started making shots," said Bruce Pearl, who suffered his most lopsided loss in two seasons as Tennessee coach. "That was just something we didn't have an answer for. Losing Chris Lofton, you miss him on the offensive end, obviously. We're not going to be the leading scoring team in the league. Our offense was somewhat compromised."
As Pearl saw it, the diversity of shooting enabled Kentucky to snap its two-game losing streak. Ramel Bradley kept firing away despite a slow start and eventually worked his way to a team-high 21 points. Joe Crawford, who was coming off a career-high 29-point game at Georgia on Wednesday, added 15.
Freshman Jodie Meeks gave UK a third perimeter scorer by adding 16 points. With Tennessee concerned with helping its undersized (and under-experienced) front line limit Randolph Morris inside, the Vols were stretched to the breaking point.
"When Meeks started making shots, you know you still have to guard Crawford and Bradley," Pearl said. "And they've got the big fella inside (Morris). There's your formula."
Kentucky, which improved to 16-5 overall and 5-2 in the Southeastern Conference, took solace in a strong second half. The Cats wilted in the second half in losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia in the last eight days.
"It was a tale of two halves again," Smith said in reference to his team's up-and-down character. "We just got the right half this time. I was glad to see us finish the right way and be physical and be strong."
Tennessee, which lost for the fifth time in the last six games, fell to 14-7 overall, 2-4 in the SEC and 0-2 without Lofton.
Although his players downplayed the importance of Lofton's absence, Smith graciously acknowledged the difference the Mason County product might have made.
"We know we were fortunate to catch them without Chris," the UK coach said.
Even without Lofton, Tennessee led much of the first half. Led by JaJuan Smith and Ramar Smith, the Vols led 32-31 at halftime.
Staying close was an accomplishment for Kentucky. The Cats got only two points and two rebounds from Morris.
As for the perimeter, veterans Crawford, Bradley and Bobby Perry combined to shoot 6-for-23 from the field (2-for-14 from three-point range).
But the Cats stayed close thanks, in large part, to 10 offensive rebounds.
"Kentucky hurt us, killed us on the offensive board to keep them in the game," Pearl said. "We could stop their offense, but we couldn't stop their offensive rebounding in the first half. In the second half, we didn't stop anything."
Kentucky made 64 percent of its second-half shots. But Perry credited defense as the trigger. The Cats held Tennessee to 30-percent shooting in the second half. Other than junior JaJuan Smth, who scored a career-high 25 points, no other Vol put the ball in the basket the final 10 minutes.
"It bled over to the offensive end," Perry said of UK's defensive work. "We found our rhythm."
Ahead 52-48, the Cats got back-to-back three-pointers by Perry and Meeks to take a 58-48 with 7:43 left.
After Bradley drove for a three-point play, he swished another three-pointer. Then Meeks hit another trey to put the Cats ahead 67-48 with 4:36 left. Meeks' three was UK's seventh make in its first 10 attempts from beyond the arc. In the first half, Meeks made two of two three-point shots while his teammates made only two of 14.
"Shooting is rhythm," Smith said, "and it's contagious. Guys were getting looks. In transition, we did a better job of pushing the ball and finding guys."