I was wrong.
The Las Vegas folks were wrong.
Many fans were wrong.
Most of us thought it would be a very close hoops matchup between No. 1 Tennessee and No. 5 UK -- the first Top 5 showdown in the series history -- Saturday night at Rupp Arena but it didn’t happen that way as Kentucky rolled over Tennessee 86-69.
According to UT coach Rick Barnes, the Vols, now 23-2, were playing very selfish and the 21-4 Wildcats hit the boards hard and were ready to play. In the second half, UK raced to a 24-point margin before Tennessee rallied to make the score respectable.
“What we wanted to do was play together as a team and not try to do things one-on-one, and we just didn’t do any of that,” said Barnes, who saw his team’s winning streak end at 19 games. “In the first half, we didn’t do the things we’ve done all year in terms of our offense.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Kentucky. I thought they were terrific. I thought John (Calipari) had his team ready to play. They played great. I mean, look at those stat sheets. They dominated us in every way we could have been dominated. All we wanted to do was try to get ourselves playing together and we just didn’t do that. I thought it was the most selfish that we’ve been all year.”
Kentucky, led by Tyler Herro’s first collegiate double-double of 15 points and a career-high 13 rebounds, dominated on the boards, outrebounding the orange-clad visitors 39-26. PJ Washington and Keldon Johnson each had a hot shooting night, gunning a game-high 23 points and 19 points, respectively.
Tennessee, which was nationally ranked at No. 2 in field goal shooting (51.5 percent), hit 40.7 percent of its shots as compared to UK’s 54.7 percent.
Callpari, who is one win away from tying Joe B. Hall for the second-most victories by a UK head coach in program history, still praised the veteran Vols, who have three juniors and two seniors in the starting lineup.
“I know how good Tennessee is and that's why I told our fans (to stop yelling ‘overrated’). They're not overrated. Probably underrated," said Calipari. “When you have a team like that that's been together, that their assist-to-turnover ratio is off the charts, when they create shots for each other, like they do, when they're that physical with an inside and an outside game, where they don't rely on threes. They're winning playing basketball and they're unbelievable defensively and we got them today, but we got to go up to Knoxville. Do we have to go up to Knoxville?”
Calipari was very impressed with 6-8, 238-pound graduate student Reid Travis’ performance. Travis had 11 points, including 7 of 10 free throws, and eight rebounds for the Wildcats.
“The difference maker in the game for us was Travis. Now his numbers, 11 and 8, and you can say what you want, but he was a beast against another beast,” Calipari said of Travis’ battles with UT star Grant Williams, who hit 16 points and grabbed eight points.
UK freshman Ashton Hagans improved after a brief slump with nine points and seven assists.
Barnes wasn’t happy with his team’s rebounding.
“We’ve been telling them for two and a half weeks now that we need to rebound the ball better,” said Barnes. “We haven’t, and there are good enough coaches in this league that see this type of stuff. We kept telling our guys that sooner or later it’s going to bite us, and it bit us.
“We’ve been able to get through a couple games where we’ve been outrebounded, but we just didn’t make good basketball plays. Driving to the basket and putting your head down, block shots, playing off balance, and again, our offense really hurt us a lot. However, you have to give them credit. They made us play out of sync, so I think you have to give them lots of credit.”
The Vols have showed lots of pride in their toughness, but Kentucky was the more aggressive team Saturday night.
“It really is very disappointing. Plain and simple, they beat us in every way you could be beaten,” said Barnes. “It is disappointing when you know that you come and knowing they’re going to be ready to play. There’s no doubt that they were going to be ready to play. We just weren’t ready for the challenge. They won the game handedly, and they handled us handedly. You’ve got to give them all the credit.”
Kentucky faces Missouri on the road Tuesday night (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), while UT has a home date with Vanderbilt on the same night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).
# # #
Calipari and Barnes are the two winningest coaches in the SEC as far as total career Division I wins are concerned. According to UT pregame notes, Calipari is the league’s active leader in career wins with 699. Barnes has 683 victories.
The two coaches are friends. They met while working at a Pittsburgh basketball camp during the late 1970s. The star player at that camp? It was Sean Miller, the current head coach at Arizona.
# # #
A crowd of 24,467 who saw the UK-UT contest was almost the largest ever in Rupp Arena history. It missed by 13 fans to set UK’s all-time Rupp Arena record.
The largest crowd ever was at the Kentucky-Louisville game during Calipari’s first year at UK in 2010 when 24,479 fans saw the Cats win 71-62. The North Carolina showdown in 2009 drew a crowd of 24,468, the second-largest.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.