If it’s possible for a game to pulsate, Kentucky and Tennessee made it happen Saturday.
This Southeastern Conference semifinal game lived up to the third-time’s-a-charm motto. Boxing fans might think of the Thrilla in Manilla. For basketball fans, this was Nirvana in Nashville.
After trading lopsided victories in the regular season, Kentucky and Tennessee competed like the SEC heavyweights they’ve been in 2018-19.
Tennessee rallied from an eight-point deficit with less than three minutes left to win 82-78.
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“Like a late Sweet 16 or one of those Elite Eight matchups,” Tennessee star Grant Williams called it.
Despite the ending, Kentucky players spoke of enjoying the intense competition.
“It was a dream come true, honestly,” Tyler Herro said. “A game like that is what you dream of as a little kid.”
The victory brought Tennessee many rewards. The Vols improved to 29-4 overall, advanced to Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game against Auburn, surely gained a measure of respect it sought and — speculation will have it — got a leg up on a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
UT’s main men, Admiral Schofield and Williams, led the way. Schofield scored 21 points and Williams 20.
Kentucky, which had won the last four SEC tournaments, fell to 27-6 overall.
Again and again, fans dressed in blue competed with fans dressed in orange.
“Big Blue was going ‘Go Big Blue’ the entire time, while G-B-O (Go Big Orange) was chanting ‘Rocky Top,’” Williams said. “It was a very fun. It was very exciting.”
PJ Washington, who led Kentucky’s five double-figure scorers with 16 points, put UK ahead 76-75 on a putback with 67 seconds left.
Lamonte Turner answered for Tennessee with a three-pointer from the top of the key with 29 seconds left. In the two regular-season games against UK, Turner made only four of 21 shots (none of 11 from three-point range).
“That’s the second time I’ve done that against Kentucky,” he said in reference to a last-minute basket in Tennessee’s 61-59 victory at UK last season. “So when I hit it again, I’m like, ‘Man, that’s crazy. I just did it again.’”
Turner had made only one of his last 19 three-point shots, only three of the last 30.
“That’s Lamonte Turner …,” Williams said. “There’s no doubt in our minds that he was going to be able to take and make that shot. No matter if he’s shooting zero for 60 for four weeks.”
Kentucky got two chances at a counter strike in a game filled with them. But Washington missed a contested shot in the lane and then short-armed a putback at the rim.
Jordan Bone, UT’s hero in Knoxville, made four of four free throws in the final 10.9 seconds to clinch it.
“Obviously, we played really well for 37 minutes,” Tyler Herro said. “I think we stuck to our assignments for those 37 minutes with (only) a few lapses. Then at the end, we let down.”
The first half set an immediate tone: this was going to be a turbo-charged game. After a most eventful first 20 minutes, Tennessee led 36-34.
But Kentucky had to feel all right with that. Washington, the team’s leading scorer (14.7 points per game) and rebounder (7.6), was called for his second foul with 14:18 left. He went to the bench and did not return.
EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards picked up the slack. The pair combined for eight points and three rebounds.
Tennessee made seven of nine three-point shots in the first half. That equaled the number the Vols made in the teams’ game in Lexington and was one shy of UT’s total in the rematch in Knoxville.
Schofield led the way by making all three of his shots from beyond the arch. Overall, he hit five of eight shots and scored 13 points. This was in striking contrast with the regular season games in which he made only 10 of 31 shots, and one of 12 from three-point range against Kentucky.
“Championship was on the line,” he said to explain the difference. “Really locked in.”
After 33-plus minutes of competitive point-counterpoint, Kentucky took the game’s first lead of more than five points. Keldon Johnson’s driving layup and and-one free throw put UK ahead 67-60 with 6:14 left.
Another three-point play by Johnson gave UK the game’s largest lead: 72-64 with 2:58 left.
Tennessee was not going away. After missing its first eight three-point shots of the second half, Schofield and Williams hit threes as part of an 11-2 run to set up the dramatic finish.
Afterward, Herro referenced the delicious thought of Kentucky and Tennessee competing again. Not for revenge, he seemed to say, but for the thrill more such games would bring.
“If we played them five or 10 times, it’d be 5-5,” he said. “I think we’re both up there to win a national championship.”
NCAA Tournament selection show
6 p.m. (CBS-27)