Revenge. Redemption. Reorientation toward a strong finish to the regular season. Much was on the line for Kentucky against Tennessee on Tuesday night.
UK Coach John Calipari took the unusual step of repeatedly appealing to fans and students to support his young squad with full-throated cheering.
Ultimately, it would be up to UK, which claims the dubious distinction of being the least-experienced team in college basketball history, to excite the fans.
But however excited the UK fans got during 40 minutes of nip-and-tuck basketball, they left Rupp Arena disappointed. Tennessee outplayed UK in the final minute to win 61-59.
With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leading the way with his patented drives to the basket, Kentucky led 58-56 going into the final minute.
But Gilgeous-Alexander’s turnover gave Tennessee a chance. “He timed by crossover,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of the Vols defender. Lamonte Turner’s three-pointer with 25.1 seconds left put UT ahead 59-58.
Gilgeous-Alexander turned it over again on the next possession. He said he over-penetrated and “got stuck.” This miscue fueled a fast-break dunk by Admiral Schofield that set the final score with 4.1 seconds left.
Tennessee fouled to prevent a three-point shot. Gilgeous-Alexander, who was everywhere down the stretch, made the first free throw with eight-tenths of a second left. He intentionally missed the second attempt, but Tennessee got the rebound.
Afterward, Calipari beat second-guessers to the punch by taking responsibility for the defeat.
“This one’s on me,” he said. “It’s not on this team. This team did everything they could to try to win the game.”
Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes offered a knowing smile when told that Calipari took the blame. He said he understood why the UK coach said that.
“He’s made a lot more right decisions than wrong decisions,” Barnes said.
This time Calipari second-guessed not calling timeout before either possession that ended with a Gilgeous-Alexander turnover.
“I don’t ever like to in those situations,” Calipari said of the timeout option. “But this is a different team. This team is too young. They’re just too young to know what’s there. And if they get in trouble, just call a timeout.”
To call a timeout allows the defense to get set, Calipari said. He pointed out that not calling a timeout worked in the final seconds of last week’s victory over Vanderbilt.
While Gilgeous-Alexander said Calipari “took ownership” of the loss, Quade Green suggested the players needed to shoulder some responsibility.
“We all took the blame for it, too,” Green said. “We had a few possessions, could have had a rebound, could have got a stop. We didn’t do it as players. Everybody. We took the blame, too.”
Much of the pregame talk centered on the first game. Tennessee won with muscle, which inspired a memorable assessment by Calipari. UK was “manhandled by men,” he said.
This time, Kentucky seemed ready to match muscles.
“They’re coming in here with an idea that they’re going to bash us,” Calipari said of the Vols. “And my thing is … we’re going to have to be the aggressor.”
The game was less a slugfest than a test of nerves and will.
Kentucky competed, which made a second defeat in four days more difficult to accept.
“This one will obviously sting a lot more than the others,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Because of the effort we gave tonight. And we all feel we’re getting better. And it still resulted in a loss.”
Kentucky fell to 17-7 overall and 6-5 in the Southeastern Conference.
Tennessee, which swept UK for the first time since 1998-99, improved to 18-5 overall and 8-3 in the SEC.
Little in the first half gave UK fans reason to exult. The Cats made only three of their first 15 shots, in part because of a failure to establish low-post superiority over the smaller Vols.
But Tennessee also struggled offensively. The Vols made only 10 of 26 shots in the first half.
Kentucky’s lack of low-post superiority was not for lack of trying. UK went to Nick Richards in the post twice in the first 90 seconds. Later, Jarred Vanderbilt got a chance to post up.
But UK had no points from the paint until Vanderbilt dunked a lob with 5:13 left.
An exceedingly rare sight came about three minutes later. Richards blocked Grant Williams’ shot. That ignited a fast-break that Quade Green finished with a layup with 2:19 left. That marked UK’s first fast-break points since the West Virginia game on Jan. 27.
Cheers filled Rupp Arena as Kentucky matched its six first-half baskets at Missouri on Saturday. Tennessee called timeout.
The Vols had to feel fairly good with a 27-26 halftime lead despite Williams making only one shot and scoring six points.
Neither team took charge in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Green’s driving layup put UK ahead 37-35 with 14:04 left. That excited the crowd. His free throw gave the Cats a 38-35 lead at the second television timeout of the half. That matched the largest lead either team had held to that point.
With Gilgeous-Alexander showing how many variations a driving layup can have, Kentucky inched ahead. His Euro-double step put the Cats ahead 42-39. His underhand flip tied it at 44-44. His old-school driving dunk tied it at 46-46.
But Tennessee did not wilt. Williams’ two free throws with 4:54 left put the Vols ahead 50-46. That marked the largest lead yet in a game that made a double-digit cushion unthinkable.
The stage was set for the final dramatics.
No. 24 Kentucky at Texas A&M
8:15 pm. Saturday (ESPN)