Kentucky and Tennessee, two teams that had shown multiple personalities in recent games, lived up and down to those personas Saturday night.
Thanks to PJ Washington outclassing Grant Williams in a matchup of similar power forwards, Kentucky ruled the first half.
But Tennessee owned the second, helped in no small part by Washington suffering leg cramps and watching the final 12-plus minutes from the bench with a towel over his head.
Not so coincidentally, Williams came alive in Washington’s absence and led Tennessee to a 76-65 victory over Kentucky.
“They just out-toughed us,” UK Coach John Calipari said of the second half. “They just threw us around. It was embarrassing.”
It didn’t take a Ken Pomeroy to figure out the difference made by Washington’s presence and then absence.
“When PJ went down, they saw the wounded animal,” Calipari said of the Vols. “And they went right at it.”
Tennessee (10-4) came into the game with a Ratings Percentage Index of No. 19, which was the best of any UK opponent so far this season as of Saturday. Kansas was No. 22.
Kentucky, which fell to 12-3 overall and 2-1 in the Southeastern Conference, saw its record against ranked opponents fall to 0-2.
If the game was going to be decided by the Washington-Williams matchup, the first half showed a clear — and perhaps surprising — advantage for Kentucky.
Washington simply dominated Williams. The UK freshman scored a team-high 11 points. Four times he schooled Williams with post-up moves. In the latter stages of the half, Tennessee tried Admiral Schofield on Washington.
Meanwhile, Williams missed his four shots in the first half. His only points came on two free throws after being fouled by Washington’s backup, Sacha Killeya-Jones, with 3:32 left.
“He shut me down in the first half,” Williams said of Washington. “I give it to him. He was in my head a little bit.”
By “in his head,” Williams said he meant, “the immaturity thing. Adversity strikes. You have to be able to respond. I think I did in the second half.”
The one-sided Washington-Williams matchup in the first half enabled Kentucky to enjoy a 22-6 advantage in points from the paint.
Tennessee only led for 59 seconds in the first half. UK took the lead for good on — what else? — a post-up basket by Washington over Williams with 12:57 left. That put the Cats ahead 11-9.
The lead grew to as much as 24-15 with 7:48 left. Gabriel hit a three-pointer off a pass from the post by — who else? — Washington.
Tennessee got as close as 28-27. Williams’ two free throws — his only points of the first half — set that score with 3:33 left.
But Kentucky outscored Tennessee 8-2 the rest of the half. Of course, Washington figured in the mini-run. His final post-up basket over Williams put the Cats up 35-29 with 1:55 left.
On the next possession, Washington missed a post-up shot over Williams. But Nick Richards came from the weak side to put back one of Washington’s two misses.
Calipari made an all-right gesture, pumping his right arm.
“I liked the first half,” Calipari said. “I thought, ‘OK, we got it.’”
Prosperity did not last long. UK’s first trip downcourt in the second half ended with Hamidou Diallo called for charging, which was his third foul, Williams score his first basket (a mid-range jumper) and then threw an outlet pass that netted a fast-break dunk.
That ignited a crowd, reduced UK’s lead to 37-33 and prompted a Kentucky timeout with 19:01 left.
It didn’t stem Tennessee’s momentum. Williams’ post-up over Wenyene Gabriel tied it at 39-39 with 17:27 left.
The downward spiral for Kentucky continued when Washington had to helped off the court because of cramping in his left leg with 12:33 left. Thirty-five seconds later, Gabriel picked up his fifth foul.
“As soon as we had PJ out of the game, we had no shot at winning,” Calipari said. “Because every one of their players at that point were tougher than our guys.”
When asked if the moment was too big for UK’s remaining players, almost exclusively freshmen, Calipari offered an immediate correction.
“No,” he said. “They (the Cats) got manhandled by men.”
A three-pointer by Admiral Schofield, a 6-foot-5, 238-pound forward that ESPN analyst Jay Bilas had said was built like an aircraft carrier, put Tennessee ahead 58-50 with 9:02. Schofield led the Vols with 20 points.
A post-up by Williams over Sacha Killeya-Jones gave the game its first double-digit lead: 60-50 UT with 8:15 left. It also meant the Vols had outscored UK 31-13 in the first 11-plus minutes of the second half.
“(Washington’s) cramps hurt their team a lot,” said Williams, who finished with 18 points. “The fact that they had so much confidence with him in the game. I respect him a ton.”
Calipari tried multiple ways to get Kentucky back in the game. The Cats went zone. The Cats tried the 2-2-1 press.
But unlike in recent losses, Tennessee did not wilt down the stretch.
No. 11 Texas A&M at No. 17 Kentucky
7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)