The final twelve minutes of the first meeting between Kentucky and Tennessee looked like they may be the Cats’ swan song. But after a brutal break against now-No. 24 Arkansas, John Calipari’s crew has seemingly put it together like he consistently stated they would, throttling Tennessee in Knoxville 70-55 for its third straight victory.
“Do you know where we were four weeks ago? Every guy trying to get theirs,” Cal said postgame. “The last six games… [we] have eight guys that are almost double figures. That’s a team. You’re not trying to get yours; we’re trying to do this together.”
It was a tale of two halves for Kentucky. The first was unfamiliar over the season’s opening months, but has become commonplace in recent weeks: an offensive fireworks display, with Davion Mintz serving as the fuse lighter.
The graduate transfer out of Creighton has been plying his trade as Kentucky’s big-basket provider over the past five games or so, stepping into a role that previously had no applicants. He reprised his duty early on Saturday, knocking down all five of his first-half three-point attempts in route to a game-high 15 points at the break.
“I was burning up at the beginning,” Mintz said. “[It’s] extremely helpful… [to] kind of take the air out of the other team.”
The Cats shot 60.7% (17-for-28) overall in the opening period, including a 6-of-9 showing from behind the arc to go up 45-30. It felt like every shot to leave a Wildcat’s fingertips was going to fall through the net. But the second half forced a recollection of memories Big Blue Nation would prefer to soon forget.
Kentucky’s offensive carriage reverted to pumpkin status following intermission, hitting on only 20.7% of its field goals. An 8:02 stretch saw them add only three points to their total, all of which came via free throw. Yet, the Cats maintained and even extended their lead at times.
What enabled them to do so? Their defense getting back to form. They allowed the Vols to hit on a paltry 26.9% of their attempts in half two, and just 32.1% for the game. They held the talented duo of Jalen Springer and Keon Johnson, who combined for 50 points at Rupp, to 19 on 6-of-25 (24%) from the floor.
An apparent lack of intensity on that end recently (80.25 points per game given up over the last four) made a number of Kentucky’s contests too close for comfort. A 43-31 rebounding advantage, on top of the aforementioned efforts, proved to be the recipe for final-minute relaxation.
“We had a much better game plan of stopping their penetration,” Keion Brooks, who had a career-and-game-high 14 boards, told reporters. “The more physical you are, the more things you are able to do.”
Isaiah Jackson had another outstanding game, tallying 16 points, seven rebounds and two more blocks. Two of those points came on a thunderous up-and-under dunk over Tennessee’s John Fulkerson, who Cats fans have acquired a particular dismay for during the past two years. Each successive performance like this will keep him moving up NBA Draft boards, where he is seen as a first-round pick at the very least, if not a potential lottery selection.
With Coach Cal announcing on ESPN radio shortly after the conclusion of the Volunteer win that Tuesday’s matchup versus Texas A&M has been postponed – later confirmed via UK press release – Kentucky would seem to have a week off before taking on Florida in Rupp Arena next Saturday. A number of teams across the country though have added non-conference affairs or rescheduled previously postponed ones in similar situations.
South Carolina is set for a trip to Starkville on Wednesday evening, so hosting the Gamecocks seems unlikely. Detroit-Mercy is set to participate in the Horizon League conference tournament, beginning on Feb. 25, but could end up not playing until Mar. 2 if it gets a top-four seed. It would be difficult to get COVID protocols worked out in time to make things work, but nothing is ever set in stone this year.
If the Cats end up returning next Saturday, tip off is set for 4:00 p.m. E.T with the broadcast on CBS.