Kentucky coach John Calipari told Tennessee coach Rick Barnes that he was crazy for taking on the schedule that the Vols have this year.
The experience from that early-season gauntlet might’ve been just what the Vols needed to pull off the stunning 82-80 upset over No. 4 Kentucky on Tuesday evening, however.
For the opening couple months of the season, this young Tennessee (11-9, 4-4 SEC) squad was the team that almost could.
It piled up close calls, moral victories, good efforts – however you want to characterize them. There were two in Maui: A gut-wrenching overtime loss to a talented No. 10 Oregon squad and another hard-fought game against No. 15 Wisconsin that was still in doubt up to the final moments.
The Vols went to Nashville and played with No. 3 Gonzaga as well. And perhaps toughest of all, Tennessee led No. 9 North Carolina in the Dean Dome for most of 40 minutes before ultimately coming up just short. More recently in SEC play, the Vols flirted with a road victory at No. 24 Florida before the Gators clamped down late and got the win.
There were clear signs of progress in some of those game. But they, as Bares has pointed out many times this season, weren’t what Tennessee set out to do. The battle-tested Vols finally turned the corner on Tuesday.
“I like to think our guys are growing up,” Barnes said. “They’ve played 20 games and one of the toughest schedules in the country. I hope they are learning how hard it is to win and what you have to do to win.”
Tennessee did appear to learn from some of the mistakes that have plagued the Vols at times over the course of the early-season schedule. The Vols protected the basketball, committing just nine turnovers against an athletic Kentucky (17-3, 7-1 SEC) squad. They got the ball inside – leading the much bigger Wildcats 42-28 in points in the paint – and knocking down 47 percent of their shots in total.
The guards didn’t “jack up” 3-pointers as Barnes pointed out after the game, but rather ran the offense and took what came to them. The Vols were an efficient 5-of-10 from beyond the arc, hitting a few timely deep shots that helped open everything else up.
That high level of execution gave Tennessee a chance, but perhaps the most impressive element of the win was the way the Vols were able to hold off the inevitable Kentucky charge.
Loaded with future lottery picks as always, Kentucky, after seemingly being content to settle for jumpers in the first half, finally got the memo about attacking Tennessee inside. Kentucky center Bam Adebayo (6-10, 260) got more touches and, at times, looked to be ready to take over the game. He finished with 21 points on 7-of-8 shooting, but UT refused to cave.
Kentucky cut Tennessee’s lead, which at one point in the second half swelled to 11, down to one possession three different times in the final 6:28 of the game. Tennessee had a response the first two times, and then time ran out on the third after a late made Kentucky 3-pointer went in with :01 remaining, but didn’t leave the Cats enough time to foul and get another shot.
“I think, for us, it was playing 40 minutes,” Tennessee senior Lew Evans said. “We would have lapses in the games that we played earlier against South Carolina, Gonzaga, and those top-ranked teams, where we’d go away for four or five minutes. They’d go on a run, and we couldn’t come back from it. So I think tonight we just played a full 40 minutes, and we played as team. We knew what we had to do to win.”
Maybe it was process of elimination for the Vols after finding almost every other way to lose to top-ranked team, but after coming up short time and time again this year, Tennessee finally showed that it’s ready to win the big ones.
It’s tough to imagine the Vols getting that done had they played a soft slate this year.
“I’d think the schedule we played this year finally showed up and helped us break through and get a win against an outstanding team, one of the top teams in the country,” Barnes said. “I thought our poise was great from the beginning. I thought we stayed locked in with what we are trying to get done throughout the game.”