Never mind Duke-North Carolina III. Saturday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena in an SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament semifinal, we get Kentucky-Tennessee III.
You know the storyline of trading knockouts. On Feb. 16 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky blasted Tennessee 86-69. Then on March 2 at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee returned the favor, blasting Kentucky 71-52.
So what will decide this rubber match?
“Defense,” Tennessee star Grant Williams said Friday night.
He has a point. In Lexington, UK held the Volunteers to 40.7 percent shooting from the floor. And the Cats won by 17. In Knoxville, UT held the Wildcats to 31.8 percent shooting from the floor. And the Vols won by 19.
At Rupp, Tennessee failed to get the ball inside and too often settled for jump shots from the perimeter. Afterward, Vols’ Coach Rick Barnes said he didn’t even recognize his own team. He grumbled about no ball movement, little sharing, and plenty of awful shots. And the visitors missed most of those shots.
Shooting guard Lamonte Turner was just 2-of-11 from the field. Admiral Schofield was 7-of-18. Tennessee took 25 three-pointers and made a mere seven for 28 percent. And inside, as the SEC’s reigning Player of the Year, Williams took just four shots from the floor. He made three. Though the 6-foot-7 forward ended up with 16 points and eight rebounds, he wasn’t much of a factor.
Of course, UK power forward Reid Travis had something to do with that. The grad transfer from Stanford was credited with not allowing Williams to set up shop down on the block, where the North Carolina native loves to maneuver. Instead, Williams was forced to catch the ball in uncomfortable spots and the results spoke for themselves.
Two weeks later, however, Travis missed the return game in Knoxville because of a sprained knee he had suffered three games before at Missouri. At home, Williams made seven of 13 shots, including two of four three-pointers. He was 8-of-11 from the foul line to finish with 24 points.
The real key, however, was that UK failed miserably to match the Vols on the offensive end. Kentucky shot a season-low 31.8 percent. Tyler Herro was just 2-of-11 from the floor. Keldon Johnson missed seven of his nine shots. As a team, the Cats were 5-of-19 from the three-point line or 26.3 percent. After their third and final SEC loss, John Calipari said his young shooters were “intimidated.”
Travis is back. In his first game since the injury, Travis scored eight points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked three shots on Friday. He said afterward his knee felt fine. Other than a bulky knee brace, he looked fine, too, in synch with his teammates despite the long layoff.
Saturday’s wild card is Tennessee’s Jordan Bone. The Vols’ speedy point guard played well in both games. In the first game, he was 8-of-13 from the floor, including 3-of-4 from three-point range on the way to 19 points and six assists. In the second game, UK couldn’t stay in front of Bone, who made 11 of his 15 shots. He was a perfect 5-of-5 from three on the way to 27 points.
And here’s a key stat from the Vols’ 83-76 win over Mississippi State in Friday night’s SEC quarterfinal: Tennessee was credited with 21 assists on 34 made field goals. Bone led the way with nine assists. Turner had eight. The Vols shot 51.5 percent.
The key stat from UK’s 73-55 quarterfinal win over Alabama: The losers shot just 30.4 percent. Tide guard Tevin Mack, who scorched the Cats for 22 points in Alabama’s January win over a visiting UK, failed to score Friday. Mack was 0-for-7 from the field, including 0-for-2 from three.
“They came out and put an extreme amount of pressure on us defensively,” said Bama Coach Avery Johnson afterward.
To win Kentucky-Tennessee III and reach the SEC Tournament final, the Cats will need more of the same on Saturday.