What a difference two weeks can make. A fortnight after Kentucky blitzed Tennessee in Rupp Arena, the Vols returned the favor with a convincing victory in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Tennessee defeated Kentucky 71-52 on Saturday, which marked only the third time since 1992 that the Vols prevailed over UK by a double-digit margin.
And it was only the margin that seemed in doubt as Tennessee took the lead for good less than four minutes after the opening tip and led by double digits the final 22-plus minutes.
That was a “bigs” difference from what unfolded here and UK’s 86-69 putdown of Tennessee on Feb. 16. Reid Travis played in the first game. He sat out the rematch because of the knee he sprained at Missouri.
Did Travis’ absence make that big a difference or not? UK Coach John Calipari felt strongly both ways. He addressed the no-Travis issue at the start of his post-game news conference. “It wasn’t that,” he said. “They beat us. There’s no excuse. We just were beaten every which way but loose.”
This echoed how Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes assessed the first game. “They dominated us in every way we could have been dominated,” he said.
But when Calipari was asked later to explain the stark difference in the two games, he said, “We don’t have the same team. Reid’s not here. So you’re going to have a role reversal like that.”
Travis will return to the practice court Monday, Calipari said, “and we’ll see about Tuesday (when UK plays at Ole Miss).
While both teams credited Travis will making a telling difference in the first game, Tennessee star Grant Williams did not sound convinced that the Vols’ victory could be attributed to one player’s absence.
“He brings a lot of value to their team …,” Williams said before adding, “They still have eight All-Americans according to everybody else. You still have to compete every single night.”
Tennessee learned that lesson two weeks ago when a 19-game winning streak came to a crashing halt at Kentucky.
“We, like, expect the win to happen because we had won 19 straight,” Williams said of the Vols’ attitude going into Rupp Arena. “We expected the same thing to happen against Kentucky. They put us back in a spot where we realized we still have to compete.”
Tennessee, which came with a mantra of intensity-not-emotion, was the aggressor, both teams said.
“We didn’t have it,” Calipari said. “And they played, and they came with a purpose. It was the first game in a while we did not play for each other.”
This, too, echoed what Barnes said after the first game. The UT coach said his team was “selfish” two weeks earlier.
Even the star players reversed roles. As Williams took only four shots in the first game, so PJ Washington took only six shots in leading UK with 13 points.
The loss dropped Kentucky into third place in the Southeastern Conference race going into the regular season’s final week. UK slipped to 24-5 overall and 13-3 in the SEC.
Tennessee remained in a first-place tie with LSU, which won at Alabama earlier in the day. Both teams are at 14-2. The Vols improved their overall record to 26-3.
The first half ended in a fitting way. After Williams was called for walking as he started a drive with 5.3 seconds left, Ashton Hagans took the ensuing inbounds pass and dribbled down the middle of the court all the way to the hoop.
But his reverse layup went over the top of the basket. Calipari put both hands on his head, which suggested, “what else can go wrong?”
Kentucky trailed 37-24 at the break. Poor shooting contributed to UK’s lowest scoring first half of the season. The previous low was 28 points: in the first game against Vanderbilt and against Arkansas on Tuesday.
In the first half, the Cats made only six of 26 shots (23.1-percent accuracy was a season low for a half).
Kentucky came into the game ranked No. 29 nationally in shooting (48 percent) and No. 2 in league games (47.7 percent).
The 15-point, second-half deficit that UK surmounted against Arkansas on Tuesday reappeared on the first possession of the second half. Jordan Bone, who scored 27 points, drove pretty-as-you-please to a layup that put Tennessee ahead 39-24.
UK’s deficit reached its zenith at 20 points.
Barnes suggested one reversal of misfortune that Kentucky could embrace.
“Like us, I think they’ll go back and make themselves better,” he said. “I really do think that because we have gotten better defensively since the Kentucky game in Rupp Arena.”
No. 4 Kentucky at Mississippi
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)