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March 1, 2006

Kentucky holds on to beat Vols

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Kentucky is playing more like it's accustomed to as the regular season comes to a close.

Randolph Morris scored 22 points and Rajon Rondo added 16 and the Wildcats held on to beat No. 11 Tennessee 80-78 on Wednesday night.

Kentucky (19-10, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) remained in contention for the East Division's No. 2 seed and likely ended speculation of missing the NCAA tournament - all at the expense of the suddenly struggling Volunteers (20-6, 11-4).

"This shows we can compete with anyone, that we have the ability to play and go on the road and win a game like this against the Eastern Division champions, and with their power rating, it's a big feather in our hat," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said.

"Plus the mental status of our players - they're really excited about this win."

The Wildcats avenged Tennessee's win in Lexington last month that snapped an eight-game losing streak in the series. They prevented the Vols' first season sweep since 1998-99.

"I am very disappointed, but Kentucky played a terrific second half," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "We must focus on playing better. Every night we have had intense games, and there is no margin of error for this team."

The Wildcats are still tied with Florida for the East's No. 2 seed. Kentucky hosts No. 17 Florida on Sunday.

Smith shuffled the lineup since the teams' last meeting on Feb. 7. Morris scored 20 points in Tennessee's 75-67 win in Rupp Arena, but Rondo was driving to the basket this time and the Vols had trouble stopping that new dimension.

The Vols looked like they were headed for a dramatic ending to their home season in Pearl's first year.

Tennessee had already wrapped up the East title, but the Wildcats spoiled senior night and a special T-shirt promotion for fans that created a human orange-and-white checkerboard in the stands. The Vols also lost at home to Arkansas last weekend.

"We haven't played particularly well all year long, but we've played well the last five games. And we've been preparing the proper way and the kids did what they had to do especially down the stretch," Smith said.

Tennessee was ahead by as many as 14 points in the first half, but Kentucky clamped down in the second half and took the lead for the first time after halftime on Brandon Stockton's 3 with 15:19 remaining. The Wildcats pushed it to as many as six points.

Tennessee tied it at 73 on two free throws by C.J. Watson with 4:55 left, but the Vols couldn't get any closer.

Kentucky increased the lead to 80-76 on Rondo's driving layup with 2:16 left, and Tennessee's Dane Bradshaw scored on a putback for the last points. The final 1:46 was frantic.

Watson had a 3 that rimmed out. JaJuan Smith had a chance to tie it after Rondo grabbed his jersey on a steal, but Smith missed the front end of a 1-and-1.

The Vols had possession with 19 seconds remaining, but Smith lost control of the ball when he fell. Nearly 11 seconds came off the clock during a scramble on the floor, and Stockton came up with the ball.

Joe Crawford was then fouled intentionally but missed the first free throw with 8.1 seconds left. Watson missed a 3 at the buzzer.

Crawford finished with 11 points for the Wildcats, who outshot the Vols at the foul line 13-of-19 to 5-of-10.

"I am disappointed we did not get to the free throw line more. We must play better to get respect," Pearl said.

Kentucky was 15-of-19 from the field in the second half.

Watson, Smith and Chris Lofton each scored 15 points for Tennessee while Major Wingate added 10.

For more coverage of the Tennessee Volunteers, check out VolQuest.com.
For more coverage of the Kentucky Wildcats, check out CatsPause.com.


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