KENTUCKY 73, TENNESSEE 61
Feb. 8, 2011
Rupp Arena; Lexington, Ky.
Playing with its back against the wall, Kentucky turned in one of its best efforts of the season to rekindle hope of making noise in the conference title race.
The Cats (17-6, 5-4 SEC) squeezed the life out of Tennessee, unleashing definitive runs early in each half and finally closing out a game it maintained control of for most of the evening. Moreover, the Cats' three veterans answered coach John Calipari's call to arms and outplayed the deeper Volunteers in Bruce Pearl's return from an eight-game league suspension.
UK led by double figures for the final 17:39 of the game and claimed its fifth victory in the last six meetings between the border rivals.
"I'm just saying, 'Look, you've got to be rough.' You've got to be willing to fight. You've got to be willing to take their stuff. You can't let people take our stuff. I put on the board: Refuse to lose. It's that time of the year. Refuse to lose. Figure out a way. Refuse to lose."
"I'm not sure how John (Calipari) felt about how they played. My guess is he would be proud of their veterans for stepping up and playing physically. (DeAndre) Liggins and (Josh) Harrellson are two of their toughest guys and I thought that they really, really played well tonight. In the area that they had to win, which I thought was the area of toughness and rebounding, I thought they did win." -- Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl
FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
"Tennessee is a great team, they played a bunch of good teams. They beat Pitt and Villanova, so we out executed them and once we got up and just never looked back, so to do that against a team like Tennessee is a great boost of confidence." -- UK forward Josh Harrellson
Usually, when a player matches or sets a career-high for points, which is also a game-high, and his team wins a critical conference game it's the scoring that will garner headlines. Not with DeAndre Liggins. The junior guard controlled the game from start to finish with his hustle, energy, intensity and complete focus on the defensive end of the floor, once again proving when he is involved in a game on both ends of the floor the rest of the Cats follow suit. Liggins hounded Tennessee leading scorer Scotty Hopson the entire night, ultimately finishing with five steals to go along with his career-high tying 19 points, five rebounds and three assists. Liggins was very, very good against Louisville and South Carolina, but he was flat out great against Tennessee.
The Cats were teetering yet again. Having raced out to a 19-point first half lead, the Cats watched as Tennessee ended the first 20 minutes on a 14-2 run to slice the deficit to just seven at halftime and then cut it to five with the first bucket of the second half. Would the Cats fold or finally show the resilience and killer instinct coach John Calipari has been searching for? Liggins and Josh Harrellson each hit free throws on the same ensuing possession to ignite a 13-0 spurt that pushed the lead back to 18 that would never fall below 10 the rest of the game.
DID YOU NOTICE?
Tennessee is at its best when it creates offense off its defense and gets into more of a track meet than a basketball game. Calipari has clearly figured out how to slow the pace just enough to frustrate the Volunteers and force them to execute in the halfcourt, which is far from the Volunteers' cup of tea. In the four meetings since Calipari took over at UK the Cats have held the Vols to 62 points or less three times, winning this game by an almost identical score to last year's victory in Rupp Arena (73-62 in 2010).
Terrence Jones had a terrible offensive night, making just 2-of-9 shots from the field and turning the basketball over eight times. It would have been a game to forget except that the freshman forward made an immeasurable impact on the other end of the floor, showing a maturity that at times has been lacking when his offense has gone south. Jones hauled in 11 rebounds to help UK out rebound a Volunteers team by 10 that had averaged six more boards than their opponents this season.
21 - The Cats' defensive pressure was suffocating from the opening tip, leading to 14 Tennessee miscues for the game. More importantly, UK turned those errors into 21 points and maintained a 21-10 edge over the Volunteers in that statistical category, the first time in three games UK had produced more points off turnovers than its opponent. Not coincidentally, UK won this contest after losing those previous two.
Home, sweet home. The Cats returned to Rupp Arena and immediately found their footing on the way to ending a two-game losing streak that had threatened to end their SEC championship hopes before Valentine's Day. There is a still a lot of work to be done but you could make the argument UK had some epiphanies against Tennessee that could serve it well over the final seven regular season games.
Kentucky (17-6, 5-4) travels to Memorial Gym, arguably the quirkiest venue in college basketball, to face Vanderbilt at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 12.
Matt May is the basketball beat reporter for The Cats' Pause. If you have questions or comments about the Cats e-mail him here. You can also follow "@TCPMAY" on Twitter for live updates.