UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky holds off Tennessee, 75-65

Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer drove for a basket against Tennessee on Tuesday.  Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer drove for a basket against Tennessee on Tuesday. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

In Kentucky's hour of basketball need, plenty of heroes emerged Tuesday night.

And they were needed to help UK outlast Tennessee 75-65.

That Kyle Wiltjer — yes — volunteered for a lead role made Coach John Calipari happy.

"For the first time since he's been here, Kyle said to run a play for him," Calipari said.

Wiltjer, who had made only one of seven shots in UK's first two Southeastern Conference games, delivered twice inside the final four minutes.

On the first, he posted up UT senior Kenny Hall for a basket.

As Calipari told it, Wiltjer turned to the UK coach and said, Thank you sir, may I have another?

Again, Wiltjer delivered. This time he drove to a short bank shot. Each basket restored six-point leads for UK.

A third such request was not a charm.

"Cool out, man," a smiling Calipari said he told Wiltjer. "C'mon."

Kentucky, which faced the prospect of a home losing streak for the first time since Billy Gillispie's last two home games as coach in 2009, won the final six minutes-plus. In that time, UK took the lead for good on Ryan Harrow's layup, which was set up by a pass from he's-everywhere Nerlens Noel.

Down the stretch, Noel blocked shots, rebounded and scored. After a slow start, he finished with a typically crowded stat line: 12 points, nine rebounds, two assists, six blocks and four steals.

The Cats took the lead for good with 6:16 left and slowly expanded it.

"He's the kind of coach that, if you ask him for it, he's all for running it," Wiltjer said. "He always says it takes the pressure off him and puts it on the players.

"I was feeling it a little bit and I knew we had just put in some plays for me. I knew it would be open, so I just looked over and he called it and we ran it."

Julius Mays, who made only three of 12 shots in UK's first two league games, hit a pair of three-pointers down the stretch.

Alex Poythress equaled a career high with two three-pointers.

Kentucky improved to 11-5 overall and 2-1 in the SEC.

Tennessee, which lost a fourth straight game for the first time since 2005 (Buzz Peterson's last season as coach), fell to 8-7 overall and 0-3 in the SEC.

Tennessee's leading scorer, Jordan McRae, led the Vols with 23 points (which was his average in league play coming into the game).

Despite a wintry mix in the weather forecast, a crowd of 24,033 filled Rupp Arena. They saw an entertaining game.

"Both teams competed and played hard," UT Coach Cuonzo Martin said.

Neither team took a double-digit lead until Harrow made a free throw with 14.4 seconds left to set the final score.

The teams exchanged smaller leads as the momentum shifted back and fourth.

With 7:14 left, freshman Derek Reese hit a three-pointer to put Tennessee ahead 54-53. He had made only four of 14 shots from beyond the arc before coming to Lexington.

Noel answered with three straight points. His free throw with 6:47 left tied it. On that play, Tennessee's most imposing player, 6-foot-9 Yemi Makanjuola, fouled out.

Martin said the Vols felt the absence of a player who had been "setting the tone."

Calipari said he had resigned himself to more of the same the rest of the season. The Cats of domination are no more, at least for this season.

"I came to this conclusion," Calipari said by way of introduction into his revised expectations for this season. "In the last seven or eight years, I have coached teams that have absolutely whomped on people."

Dramatic pause.

"And this ain't one of em," Calipari added as reporters laughed.

But as Calipari saw it, there won't be many laughers this season. So it will be all the more that the Cats will need players like Wiltjer to volunteer for duty in the clutch and then deliver.

"I can't imagine this team being up 20 on anybody," the UK coach said.


Kentucky at Auburn

When: 9 p.m. TV: ESPNU

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