By Penny Deatrick
A tale of two teams, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, multiple personality disorder or a terrible breakdown after UK’s outstanding first half against old rival Tennessee Vols, whatever label you choose the outcome speaks for itself.
In other words, two different Kentucky teams showed up Tuesday night.
On a Senior Night filled with positive energy from the pregame recognition of the student managers and Nate Sestina, the Wildcats appeared to be poised for taking the next big step in solidifying a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
In the opening half, Kentucky moved the ball and penetrated the Tennessee defense. The Vols had eight first-half turnovers and the Wildcats converted those turnovers to 20 points with UK leading 42-31 at the halftime.
The sixth-ranked Cats began the second half by scoring the first six points, opening up the largest lead at 48-31. Then UT went on a quick nine-point scoring spurt to pull within eight with 13:58 remaining. The Vols finally took the lead following a 10-0 run with 6:12 to go.
And UK lost its last home game of the season in a major upset by a score of 81-73, snapping its eight-game winning streak. The Cats’ record dropped to 24-6 (14-3 in SEC), while UT improved to 17-13 overall (9-8 in SEC).
When asked about what happened, UK freshman Tyrese Maxey, who gunned in a team-high 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting, said, “We didn’t fight late and that’s on us. We got to do better.
“At this point it is what it is, we gave it (the lead) up. Hats off to Tennessee. They played great, they scored the ball down the stretch, got offensive rebounds, got stops and we didn’t. It is what it is, you’ve got to go back to the drawing board.”
UK’s Immanuel Quickly, who had 15 points and tied his career high for steals with three, also spoke to the media following the game.
“They played harder than us, executed better,” he admitted. “You just have to give them credit.”
Quickley said his team’s mood after the game was “really quiet. Everybody knows we did not play our best today. We just have to move forward. We just have to let this morph us in a positive way and get ready for the next team.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari was quick to praise Tennessee and coach Rick Barnes.
“They could have gone away down 17, but that’s Rick Barnes,” said Calipari. “Don’t make this about us. This is about Tennessee and how they played. They played physical, they went at (John) Fulkerson (who had a game-high 27 points) and he caught every ball. We caught none in the post. They made some unbelievable shots, some threes when they needed to. They just kept coming. We had our chances. It was a couple minutes to go and it was anybody’s ball game.”
Added Barnes, who praised the efforts of his entire team, including Fulkerson, “He was terrific tonight and all of our guys did something great. What he did is one of the great performances I've witnessed. And he's been like that, really. He had so much confidence tonight, but our guys were confident. Even when we were down, and I would walk into the timeout, they were talking to each other about 'Hey we just can't keep making those turnovers and mistakes that we're making.’ “
On a night when many folks in Tennessee were dealing with devastation from tornadoes, Barnes and his team provided a ray of “Big Orange” sunshine.
Next up for the Cats is an always-tough opponent, the Florida Gators, on Saturday afternoon (1 p.m. EST on CBS) in Gainesville.
Here’s hoping this “Tale of Two Teams” has a much better ending.
Penny Deatrick is a staff writer from Louisville.