Kentucky basketball existed in an alternate universe Saturday. Fortunately, Kentucky wins in that universe, too.
UK used good shooting from — say what? — three-point range and — you're kidding — the free-throw line to beat Tennessee 74-66.
Tennessee disarmed UK's signature weapons: rebounding and points from the paint. But even without the security of its modus operandi, Kentucky's freshman-dependent team hung in there, took the lead late in the first half and outlasted an older, more experienced Tennessee team that executed its game plan.
Point guard Andrew Harrison, who scored 16 of his career-high 26 points in the second half, saw a message in this game. "That we have mental toughness," he said, "and physical toughness as well."
UK, which improved to 13-4 overall and 3-1 in the Southeastern Conference, had been outrebounded only once all season (by Baylor) and came into the game ranked No. 2 nationally in rebound margin (plus-13, on average). Tennessee, which was ranked 10th nationally in the same category, chewed up the Kiddie Cats. UT's 39-24 advantage included 20 offensive rebounds (a season high for a UK opponent).
"Those dudes are pretty big," said Julius Randle, no peewee himself at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds. "... That's all I can say. Those dudes are pretty big dudes."
Jarnell Stokes, who averaged four points and 5.5 rebounds in two previous games in Rupp Arena, scored 20 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.
"That's what we do," Tennessee Coach Cuonzo Martin said with his typical directness. "We rebound the ball. We have two of the better rebounders on both ends of the floor (Jeronne Maymon is the other). Especially offensive rebounds. We look at that as part of our offense."
Tennessee (11-6, 2-2) became only the fourth opponent to outscore Kentucky in the paint (38-26). The previous three — Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina — all beat the Cats.
"I'm just happy we don't have to see them again until the (SEC) tournament time, possibly," UK Coach John Calipari said, "and I hope we don't see them there. They're a physical team."
Kentucky countered with unusually good shooting. Like many opponents, Tennessee could live with UK shooting three-pointers. The Cats ranked No. 296 in three-pointers per game (4.9). But UK made five in the first half en route to a 7-for-16 performance from beyond the arc. That equaled UK's second-most treys in a game this season, and the most since making eight against Baylor on Dec. 6.
"That definitely confused us," Stokes said. "That team hadn't been that good as far as the perimeter."
Randle set the tone by making his first three-pointer of the season (he had been 0-for-7 from beyond the arc). Operating more than usual from the perimeter, he had 16 of his 18 points in the first half.
Kentucky's fifth three-pointer of the first half — by James Young with 52.3 seconds left — set the halftime score.
"When you're talking about talented teams and very talented players, something has to give at some point," Martin said of clogging the lane and giving UK space for perimeter shots.
"The biggest thing is we're not a team that's going to shoot 25 threes," Calipari said. "That's not who we are. We're a driving team. We're a post-up team. We're a rebounding team."
When Tennessee re-emphasized containing Randle in the second half, Kentucky turned to Andrew Harrison and its drive-drive-drive attack.
UK's free-throw shooting, a source of much fan lamenting this season, helped the drives produce points. The Cats, who entered the game ranked No. 282 in free-throw accuracy, made their first 17.
That threatened the school record for accuracy: 19-for-19 against Mississippi State on Feb. 8, 1983, and against Duke on March 3, 1930. With almost 40 seconds left and Tennessee in foul-to-stop-the-clock mode, a new record seemed possible.
But Aaron Harrison missed the front end of a one-and-one with 32.5 seconds left, so the history books needed no rewrite.
What needed rewriting, or at least rethinking, was the notion that opponents should take their chances collapsing defenders in the paint and challenging the Cats to make perimeter shots and/or free throws.
"We have to show the world we can also make shots," Harrison said of UK's guards. "When Julius is double-teamed and stuff, we can also make shots.
"I think that's the smart thing to do. But shots fell today, and it's pretty hard to beat us when that happens."