Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall mentioned three things that teams that have battled with No.1 Kentucky (26-0, 13-0 SEC) this year have done well: 1. Keep it close in rebounding (35-35) 2. Limit turnovers (15) and 3. Make perimeter shots (2-of-17 from 3-point range).
Check, somewhat of check and no luck.
The Vols (14-11, 6-7 SEC) had many of the ingredients for an upset bid – A Miracle On Ice, Part II so to speak in the middle of a winter storm in Knoxville that kept many fans from both sides home despite the announced sellout of 21,678. But basketball can be a simple game sometimes, and the Vols couldn’t connect enough to keep a tight game close down the stretch.
“We didn’t shoot the ball very well,” said Tyndall. “All that is credited to Kentucky because they are a heck of a defensive team at every position, challenges and bothers shots, and certainly bothered us some tonight.”
The 66-48 final made it look like Kentucky vastly outplayed the Vols all night, but while the ‘Cats were far and away the superior team, the Vols made it interesting for 3/4 of the game. Trailing just 48-44 at the 8:36 mark of the second half, Tennessee, which amazingly ended the game tied with Kentucky in rebounding at 35, couldn’t buy a bucket.
The Vols hit just two of their final 12 field-goal attempts, connected on zero 3-pointers in the second half and hit just 1-of-6 free throws in the final 20 minutes. Overall, Tennessee shot 37.5% from the floor, just 11.8% from 3-point territory and 40% from the free-throw line.
“I don’t think we were executing as well as we were in the first half,” said guard Josh Richardson, who finished with 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting. “I think our aggression was there. I just don’t think we were running our stuff like we know how to.”
Credit Tyndall and the Vols for keeping it tight as long as they did, however.
The talent gap was tremendous. Kentucky has six of the projected top-50 2015 NBA Draft selections on its roster, while UT has one player – Richardson – who even has a chance to be considered anywhere in the draft. When UK’s elite big man Karl-Anthony Towns headed to the bench with two early fouls, coach John Calipari simply turned to Dakari Johnson, another potential lottery pick, to take his spot.
But Tennessee kept that embarrassment of riches limited for at least a large portion of the game. UT’s zone crashed down on UK’s bigs, forcing the Wildcats to kick it out to perimeter players for 3-pointers. The Wildcats hit just 5-of-22 (22.7%) on the game, helping the Vols keep it close.
Kentucky was just too much, however. A great example of that came at the 6:57 mark of the second half. With the Vols trying to keep the deficit from getting too far away from them, Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis hit one free throw to make it 53-44, he missed the next, Towns scooped up the offensive board, got fouled and completed the three-point play to make it 56-44. Game essentially over.
“They miss one free throw and the one that they miss, we don’t block out, and then they offensive rebound and get an and-one,” Tyndall said. “Those are two things that you can control, being disciplined at the end of the possession and getting the free-throw block outs. Those are two things we could and should control and we didn’t in those two instances.”