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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With the victory, 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, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, led the way. Schofield scored 21 points and Williams 20.
Kentucky, which had won the last four SEC tournaments, fell to 27-6 overall.
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, Turner made only four of 21 shots (none of 11 from three-point range).
Kentucky got two chances at a counter 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.
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) and rebounder (7.6), picked up his second foul with 14:18 left. He went to the bench and did not return.
Washington’s second foul came as part of a double flagrant 1 technical that resulted from an exchange with UT’s Derrick Walker. Washington’s first half consisted of two points and no rebounds in six minutes.
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.
Kentucky made the final three-pointer of the half, and it was a stunner. With UT ahead 36-31 (which matched the biggest lead either team had in the first half), UK called time with 27.7 seconds left.
Whether planned or not, what UK got was a three-point shot from Travis. He had made only six of 24 all season, but he hit this one with 2.7 seconds left to set the halftime score.
The second half served as a second act. UK’s bench received a technical foul with 11:15 left. Two technical free throws put Tennessee ahead 54-51.
Yet 20 seconds later, momentum shifted to Kentucky. UT center Kyle Alexander picked up his fourth and fifth fouls. His game was done with 10:55 left.
Twice Tennessee called timeouts to stem the tide after Kentucky dunks. The second came after Washington flew to the rim as the trailer on the fast break. His slam put UK ahead 63-58. UT called time with 7:33 left.
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 a 11-2 run to set up the dramatic finish.