Kentucky 64, Tennessee 63: Keys to the victory
A game Kentucky had seemed to have under control — and one it really needed — was slipping away.
Down 57-47 with less than five minutes left in the game, Tennessee had stormed back and was within two as the contest entered its final two minutes.
With that “oh no, it’s slipping away” feeling filling Memorial Coliseum, Janee Thompson did what a senior point guard is supposed to do.
She bailed her team out.
With Thompson scoring UK’s final five points, No. 12 Kentucky (15-3, 4-3 SEC) turned back a frantic comeback by the No. 19 Lady Vols (12-7, 3-3) and scored a 64-63 victory before a crowd of 6,188.
It was a vital win for the Wildcats, who were coming off a dispiriting upset loss at Mississippi and were off to a so-so start in SEC play.
“The ball was in my hands, I was just taking open shots,” she said. “They were kind of switching and getting confused on defense. I was literally wide open a couple of times so I just shot the ball.”
With the victory, UK Coach Matthew Mitchell now has five of Kentucky’s 11 all-time victories over the Lady Vols.
Kentucky was clinging to a 59-57 advantage with 1:08 left when Thompson drove the basketball hard and drew a foul call on UT’s Diamond DeShields.
The 5-foot-6 product of Chicago sank both foul shots to put UK up 61-57.
After Tennessee’s Te’a Cooper answered with a layup to pull UT within two, Thompson found herself with the ball and an open look from 15 feet.
It swished to put UK ahead 63-59.
The Kentucky senior made the second of two free throws with 23.3 seconds left, and that gave the Wildcats just enough margin to survive.
That Thompson was in position to help the Cats claim a crucial victory was much in doubt after she had to be carried off the court with a left ankle injury during UK’s 73-65 loss at Mississippi.
Making that injury doubly troubling for Thompson, that was the same ankle she dislocated while also fracturing her left leg in a horrific, season-ending injury at South Carolina last season.
“It was a very, very traumatic experience for her,” Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “She didn’t know if she had re-injured it or not.”
On Saturday, during the Kentucky men’s basketball victory over Vanderbilt, Thompson was in Rupp Arena being X-rayed. When those X-rays showed no structural damage to her ankle, “she kind of turned the corner mentally,” Mitchell said.
On Sunday, Thompson participated in some limited practice drills and got through. During Monday’s day-of-game UK workout, “I felt even better,” she said.
So Thompson was available as Kentucky tried to snap a four-game losing streak against Tennessee.
It did not look good early for UK, as the Cats shot miserably in the first half (12-of-40 for 30-percent field-goal shooting) and fell behind 35-28 at halftime.
Coming off the bench, Thompson helped Kentucky stay that close with eight first-half points. She finished the game with 15.
In the third quarter, the game changed dramatically thanks to UK star Makayla Epps.
The Marion County product scored 14 of her game-high 23 points in the third period and helped Kentucky claim a five-point lead entering the fourth quarter.
“I thought Epps kind of took over the game,” Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick said.
That lead grew to 10 before Tennessee went to an all-out full-court press, exacerbating a persistent UK bugaboo — ball handling against tight pressure.
Kentucky had only 10 turnovers for the game — “If you don’t believe in God, you need to check that out,” Mitchell joked — but five of them came down the stretch, helping Tennessee come very close to stealing a game Kentucky deserved to win.
Except, when winning time came, Janee Thompson, balky left ankle and all, scored UK’s final five points and helped the Cats close out a game they really, really needed.