KNOXVILLE — Kentucky, you might want to send a fruit basket to Bruce Pearl.
Tennessee beat UK 74-65 Saturday before a raucous 21,124 in Thompson-Boling Arena. In doing so, Pearl and his Volunteers probably did John Calipari a major favor.
Badly outhustled early, UK sleepwalked through the first half of this noon start and found itself down by 19, 54-35, with a little more than 14 minutes left in the game.
Roughly 12 minutes of playing time later, the expected brilliance of John Wall (seven straight points to launch a comeback) and some welcomed toughness from Darius Miller (three huge pressure baskets) helped Kentucky (27-2, 12-2 SEC) tie the score at 65.
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"When it went 65-65, I thought we were winning," Calipari said later. "There was no question in my mind, we were winning this game."
From the season's second game at Miami (Ohio) right through UK's stirring late-game work in Starkville and Nashville earlier this month, dodging late bullets has been the Cats' M.O.
In a sport whose champion is picked in a wild-and-woolly, one-and-done tournament, that's a dangerous pattern with which to get comfortable.
On Saturday, the Rocky Toppers made UK pay.
This time, it was Tennessee (21-7, 9-5) that made the pressure plays, especially Hopkinsville product Scotty Hopson.
The former University Heights Academy star set up Tennessee's go-ahead bucket at 1:34 when he caught DeMarcus Cousins on a defensive switch, drove past him into the lane and threw a nifty pass to J.P. Prince for a layup.
With 38 seconds to go, Hopson delivered the dagger by burying a three-pointer for a 70-65 UT lead.
"It feels great," Hopson said, smiling ear to ear, of being the hero in a defeat of the home-state university he spurned.
While I'm not usually an advocate of "the good loss," I think this one was a lesson Kentucky needed before March Madness.
That was also Calipari's post-game spin.
"Look, I wanted to win the game," the Kentucky coach said. "But this is a great learning experience for our team."
Lesson One: If UK is to attain the lofty aspirations that the Kingdom of the Blue has for it, it cannot afford to slumber into games as it did Saturday.
After Kentucky scored the first four points, Tennessee unleashed a stunning 18-0 run. The Volunteers flat out-worked the Cats early on, as evidenced by a 17-7 rebounding advantage at the second TV timeout.
Because UK played a 9 p.m. game Thursday against South Carolina and faced a noon tip Saturday, Calipari skipped the normal pre-game shoot-around (which he second-guessed afterwards).
But Cousins said the short turnaround time and break from normal pregame routine were no excuse for Kentucky being left in the starter's gate.
"We've played afternoon games before," the UK center said, shaking his head. "We just came out low energy and they came out and hit us in the mouth."
Wall said that Calipari told his team to imagine the consequences of starting an NCAA tournament game as poorly as the Cats did in Knoxville.
"Our season would be over," Wall said. "I think that's getting through to everyone."
Lesson Two: It would be nice if somebody in Kentucky blue could start hitting some outside shots.
Tennessee often had two men, one in front, one behind, on Cousins when the ball came inside.
As a result, Kentucky perimeter shooters had vast expanses of open prairie from which to fire.
Yet UK shot 2-for-22 from three-point range. It is now 27-for-125 in its last seven games from deep.
Said Wall: "I think it's a confidence thing. We hit them in practice. But the key for us down the stretch, (is) making shots when they give it to us."
A trip through UK basketball history tells us a late-season loss is hardly fatal to a deep March run. Kentucky's five most recent Final Four teams and their last non-NCAA tourney defeats: 1998 (Feb. 14); 1997 (March 2); 1996 (March 10); 1993 (Feb. 24); 1984 (Feb. 27).
It could well be that losing on Feb. 27, 2010, means Kentucky is more likely to still be playing basketball during the season's final weekend.
Said Calipari: "This was a great lesson. Losing like this will wake us up. This is not a bad thing. This is a good thing."
On second thought, maybe Bruce Pearl would prefer candy.