A 17-point lead just wasn’t enough for a Cats win.
After a second half in which Kentucky (24-6, 14-3 SEC) looked like deer in headlights, the Tennessee Volunteers walked out of Rupp Arena with an 81-73 win on UK's Senior Night—after being defeated by the Cats by 13 just a few weeks prior.
“Any time you're up 17 and there's whatever it was left, the game got physical and we couldn't compete,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “It just got physical. We tried different ways to try to score and we just, we had nothing. Couldn't throw it to the post. Tried to open up the court, wasn't getting by people.”
By halftime, the Cats held a 42-31 lead, were shooting 4-of-5 from the three-point range and were outrebounding Tennessee 14-8. Then within three-and-a-half minutes of the second half, Kentucky had earned its largest lead of the game at 17. But it didn’t last long. Tennessee went on a 9-0 run put the Vols a little closer, and by the 7:28 mark, the Cats saw their lead diminish to just three points. UT would go on to lead by as many as nine, and sealed the win 81-73.
"They were a better team today, credit to them," sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley said. "They played harder than us, executed better. You just have to give credit to them.”
The Volunteers outscored Kentucky 50-31 in the second half, and ended up outrebounding the Cats 31-26. Other major factors were Kentucky's turnovers-- 14 of them resulted in 16 total points off turnovers, and Tennessee junior forward John Fulkerson, who scored a career-high 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting.
"He's just gotten better and better," Calipari said. "He works really hard he fights for everything and he has a way of getting that shot up and off, I mean, he does. And he scored on Nick, he scored on Nate, he scored on E.J., we tried everybody. We tried trapping, we tried a lot of different things to slow him down, but he was a tough cover for us."
Kentucky freshman Tyrese Maxey was Kentucky's leading scorer in the loss, coming up with 21 points and an assist. He says he's giving himself 24 hours to be upset about the loss, then it's time to gear up for UK's final regular-season game at Florida this weekend.
“Oh yeah, you can definitely learn something," Maxey said. "Like you said we’ve been doing it all year, giving up leads, but we just got to bounce back. It’s like I’ve been saying, you got 24 hours and after that you’re back at the drawing board to practice on Thursday.”
Quickley, who finished with 15 points, three rebounds, three assists, three steals and committed four turnovers, says it's time to reflect, move on and prepare for the next task at hand.
"Look in the mirror and see what you could've done better," Quickley said. "I think every team has a loss kind of like this where you expect to come out and play really well and you don't. Nobody's perfect, Cal always says we're not machines. It's not really an excuse to come out and not get it done and not play hard enough to win... You just got to look in the mirror, watch film, see how you could've been better, move on the the next game and keep trying to get ready."
The Cats take on the Florida Gators in Gainesville on Saturday, March 7 at 1 p.m. in their final game of the regular season.