Tennessee coach: We weren’t up to the challenge
Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 86-69 win over No. 1-ranked Tennessee in Rupp Arena on Saturday:
1. UK is better when it has something to prove
After Tuesday night’s tough and controversial 73-71 loss to LSU in Rupp, John Calipari told his team it probably needed a good “knock to the head.” Saturday’s results proved the coach right. “Losing the LSU game probably helped us win this game,” Calipari said Saturday.
Much like when it defeated North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic back in December, Kentucky played with a purpose to take down the top-ranked Vols. Against UNC, Calipari’s club was out to prove it was not the same team that was rudely waxed by Duke in the season-opener. Against UT, the Cats were out to prove they were better than the immature group that squandered a nine-point lead in the second half and lost to LSU four days before. “We were locked in tonight,” said freshman Keldon Johnson.
It showed. Offensively, UK shot 59.3 percent the first half. It shot 54.7 percent for the game, its highest percentage since 55.6 at hapless Vanderbilt back in the Jan. 29 rout of the Commodores. After listening to Calipari harp on their dwindling “rebound attempt” numbers, the Cats beat the Vols on the boards 39-26. Tyler Herro ball included a career-high 13 rebounds. Tennessee leads the nation in assists at 20 per game. UK ended up with 14 assists on the night. Tennessee finished with 11.
On the defensive end, the game plan was good, the execution even better. Grant Williams, UT’s senior forward and Player of the Year candidate, was held to just four shots. He made three. He finished with 16 points and eight rebounds. UT Coach Rick Barnes said Williams fought harder than any other Vol on the night. Still, he wasn’t much of a factor.
Tennessee shot 40.7 percent for the night, including 34.5 percent in the second half. Lamonte Turner missed nine of 11 shots. Jordan Bowden, usually Mr. Instant Offense off the bench, was just one of seven. Barnes said his team was selfish. (More on that later.) But he also said the credit goes to UK.
“They beat us every way you can be beaten,” said the coach.
2. PJ Washington made the case
The sophomore forward couldn’t help but smile. It was the post-game press interview session. Kyle Tucker of The Athletic asked Washington if he was the best player in the SEC. PJ bowed his head, but couldn’t hide his grin. Being a competitor, he said, yes, he thought he was the best player in the conference. Based on Saturday’s performance, who could argue?
Washington set the tone by scoring the game’s first seven points. He finished with a game-high 23. It was the seventh time in the last eight games that the Texan has scored 23 or more points. He went nine of 12 from the floor. At least three of his made field goals were pretty hook shots over smaller UT defenders. “When we went small, we couldn’t handle PJ,” said Barnes.
Coming into the game, the prime matchup was Washington vs. Williams. The latter was averaging 19.4 points and 7.4 rebounds. He finished with 16 and eight. But he was never really the major factor he is in most games. Credit Reid Travis for much of that. UK’s 6-8 grad transfer banged with Williams all night. Williams played 35 minutes. Travis played 33. And afterward, Calipari said Travis was on an IV. And, said the coach, he deserved a hug from Washington.
The UK coach has been hard on Washington. Even after Washington’s better games, Calipari said he wanted to see more. And Saturday the sophomore’s habit of disappearing for stretches disappeared. He was aggressive from start to finish, so much so he left with under two minutes remaining because of cramps. That was OK. He’d put in a full night’s work, worthy of a Player of the Year.
“He’s doing some good stuff,” said Calipari, who seemed to be trying to think of something he could use to push PJ further. Unlike his star, the coach came up empty.
3. The capital T in Tennessee could stand for trouble
The Vols had not played a ranked team since their 76-73 win over then No. 1-ranked Gonzaga way back on Dec. 9. Kentucky had played five ranked teams since then. It had beaten four. The lone loss was that two-pointer to LSU.
“That’s the most selfish we’ve been all year,” said Barnes afterward, lamenting his team’s one-on-one play and possessions in which the Vols settled for jumpers. Tennessee usually kills opponents inside the three-point arc. On this night, the Vols were outscored 36-20 in the paint. They managed just four fast-break points. They were seven of 25 from three-point land. To Barnes’ liking, 25 is too many three-point attempts.
The Vols get Vanderbilt, winless in the SEC, in Knoxville on Tuesday night. After that, however, the degree of difficult increases sharply. Tennessee travels to LSU on Saturday that could end up deciding the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament. On Feb. 27, UT travels to Ole Miss. The Rebels are now 8-4 in the SEC. And come March 2, Kentucky comes to Knoxville for the return game. That should be fun.
One more note: Late in the second half, the UK student section broke into a chant of “Overrated.” Calipari quickly turned to the crowd and told them to cut it out. Afterward, the Kentucky coach said the Vols are not overrated. If anything, he said, Tennessee is underrated. And might be right. On this night, Kentucky was just that good.