No matter its seed or its destination or its stay in the Big Dance, the one that matters, this Kentucky basketball team might not play in a more physical, more gripping, or more beneficial game than it played in Saturday.
I know, I know, Kentucky lost. Tennessee won. I get it. The Volunteers snatched the rubber match between the national powerhouses, rallying from eight points down in the final three minutes to clip the Cats 82-78 in an heart-pounding SEC Tournament semifinal at Bridgestone Arena.
And yes, Kentucky led 72-64 when Keldon Johnson converted an old-fashioned three-point play with 2:58 remaining. And, yes, the Cats couldn’t hold that lead, succumbing to a series of turnovers and defensive lapses that allowed the experienced Volunteers to step up and knock down a pair of ice-cold three-pointers when it counted most.
Grant Williams hit the first. The now two-time SEC Player of the Year, who was 12-for-40 from beyond the arc for the season, buried an open three from the right corner to make it 75-74 UT with 1:29 left. Lamonte Turner hit the dagger. The junior guard, 0-for-11 from three in the two previous UK-UT games, drained a three from the top of the key with 29 seconds that was basically the game-winner.
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“I felt like we put ourselves in a great spot down the stretch,” UK’s Reid Travis said later. “But we just didn’t come out with the win.”
No, the outcome didn’t work out, but what led up to it was a valuable taste of what’s to come. After alternating blowouts during the regular campaign, the traditional rivals played an epic, emotional classic on a neutral floor in a packed arena of 20,933 with screaming, pleading fanatics on both sides. Actually, by game’s end there were only 20,932 thanks to Doug Shows having security eject a UK fan on the front row who kept rising from his seat to let his feelings be known every time the official approached the scorer’s table.
Yes, it was that kind of game. And, listen up Kentucky freshmen, it’s going to be exactly like this moving forward into next week’s NCAA Tournament. OK, maybe not the noise. Still, every game matters. Every possession matters. Every play matters. Welcome to the postseason.
“For sure,” Travis said. “It was up and down, got physical. You’re going to get games like that, tough to rebound, tough to defend. In fairness, I wish we would have won, but this is just going to make us better for the tournament.”
After all, if Kentucky slipped off the Selection Committee’s No. 1 seed line, surely the Vols staked their claim to that spot. And for 40 minutes Saturday, the two staged a heavyweight battle that nearly scored dead even. Why with 11:15 to go, UK had made 20 of 41 shots. And Tennessee had made 20 of 41 shots.
In the coming weeks, these Cats are not likely to face a team much tougher than Tennessee. If the two teams played 10 times, would it be a five-five split? “I think so,” said UK guard Tyler Herro. “They’re a great team, and we’re pretty good ourselves.”
Just not good enough at crunch time. Not this time. Herro was called for walking in the backcourt with 2:44 left. A minute later, Johnson stepped on the sideline after securing the ball in a scramble. And after Turner’s three, Washington missed back-to-back point-blank shots around the rim. Plus, there was the fact that Tennessee scored on seven of its final eight possessions.
“We’ve got to stick to our (defensive) assignments,” said Herro for the lesson in defeat. “And not allow them to get the lead with under two minutes left.”
“This motivates us, but this mattered to us, too,” said Travis of having to make the trip home. “We really wanted to come out and win the whole thing. Obviously disappointed.”
But not done. Not by a long shot.
“(Coach said) if we win the next few games,” said Herro, “this game doesn’t matter.”