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5 Observations: Tennessee 81, No. 6 Kentucky 73

(Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

For once, it wasn’t Tennessee blowing a big second half lead and losing a game they shouldn’t have.

No. 6 Kentucky held a 17-point lead over the Vols with 16:54 left in the second half on their own home court. An Immanuel Quickley and-one gave the Wildcats a 51-34 lead, and Tennessee still hadn’t scored to start the second half. The Rupp Arena crowd was smelling blood.

It felt like Kentucky was about to run away with another victory over the Vols in Lexington. But Tennessee had other ideas.

The Vols closed out the second half in dominating fashion, outscoring Kentucky 50-31 in the second half to erase an 11-point halftime deficit and a 17-point second half lead to pull out a stunning 81-73 victory over No. 6 Kentucky in Rupp Arena.

Tennessee (17-13, 9-8 SEC) trailed for just over 30 minutes of game time on Tuesday night, and Kentucky (24-6, 14-3) looked in control for most of the night. But once the Vols grabbed the lead with 6:47 to go, they would never give it up. Kentucky tied the game once after that thanks to an Ashton Hagans and-one, but Tennessee would reclaim the lead on an Yves Pons three just moments later, and they eventually put enough distance between themselves and the Cats to grab a victory.

The win marks only the sixth time ever that Tennessee has beaten Kentucky in Rupp Arena. The Wildcats’ home court opened up prior to the 1976-77 season, and the Vols had gone 5-37 in Rupp in non-SEC Tournament games against Kentucky.

On Tuesday, Tennessee improved to 6-37 in Rupp Arena.

Kentucky shot just 33.3 percent in the second half, including just 25 percent from three. The Vols connected on 50 percent of their field goals and went 4-of-8 from three in the second half to pull out a huge upset.

Here are our five biggest takeaways from Tennessee’s remarkable 81-73 victory over No. 6 Kentucky in Lexington.

Dominant Down the Stretch 

Tennessee didn’t just win the second half on Tuesday night, but they flat out controlled the game in the final minutes.

Kentucky held a 10-point lead with 12:27 to go after a Tyrese Maxey three made the score 56-46. But over the final 12 minutes of the game, the Vols just clamped down and buried the Wildcats.

The Vols outscored Kentucky 35-17 over the final 12-plus minutes of the game. If you push it back to when Kentucky had a 17-point lead with 16:54 to go, UT outscored the Cats 47-22 to close out the game.

After that Maxey three to make it 56-46, Kentucky made just five field goals over the final 12 minutes of the game. They connected on four free throws as well, but they went just 5-of-17 from the floor to close out the game. Tennessee, meanwhile, made 14 of their final 23 field goals in the game.

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Crash Those Boards

One of the biggest shifts from the first half to the second half was Tennessee being able to get rebounds and beat the Wildcats on the glass.

Kentucky held a big rebounding advantage in the first half, winning that battle 14-8, including grabbing five offensive boards compared to just two by the Vols.

In the second half, Tennessee completely flipped the script.

Tennessee out-rebounded Kentucky 23-12 in the second half, with Josiah-Jordan James grabbing seven in the second half. The Vols snagged nine offensive rebounds while Kentucky managed five. That led to nine second-chance points for UT compared to just four for UK.

James, John Fulkerson, Yves Pons, Jordan Bowden, and Santiago Vescovi all had at least four rebounds in the game. Aside from Nick Richards — who had nine — Kentucky didn’t have much luck rebounding. EJ Montgomery was the only other effective rebounder for the Wildcats, as he grabbed six. Every other UK player had three or fewer rebounds.

History Made

Tennessee’s win wasn’t just big for the Vols this season; historically, it was significant in a number of ways.

For the first time since John Calipari has been head coach of Kentucky, the Wildcats lost a game while up by double digits at halftime. UK led by 11 at the half, 42-31, and that lead was even eventually pushed to 17 at two different points early in the second half.

But the Vols rallied and eventually prevailed, handing Calipari an improbable loss.

That wasn’t the only bit of history made on Tuesday night, though.

With the victory, Rick Barnes becomes the first head men’s basketball coach in Tennessee history to get two wins in Rupp Arena. Kentucky’s current home court opened up prior to the 1976-77 season, and the Vols had only won five times in Rupp before Tuesday’s game. Ray Mears got a win in 1977, Don DeVoe won in 1979, Jerry Green won in 1999, and Bruce Pearl won in 2006. Barnes’ 2017-18 Volunteers handed Kentucky a 61-59 defeat in Rupp on February 6, 2018. And on Tuesday, UT won 81-73 in Rupp, guided, again, by Rick Barnes.

Now, Barnes owns two victories in Rupp Arena, which is something no other Tennessee head coach on the men’s side can say.

Tuesday’s win is also the 16th time an unranked Tennessee team has handed a top-10 Kentucky team a loss, but it’s only the third time an unranked Vol squad has done so in Lexington.

Career Performances 

Both John Fulkerson and Josiah-Jordan James are the MVPs for the Vols on Tuesday.

Fulkerson was unstoppable in the first half, and that trend continued in the second half. The redshirt junior was a perfect 7-of-7 on his field goal attempts in the first half, dumping in 15 points in the process. In the second half, Fulkerson went just 3-of-8, but he was 6-of-6 from the free throw line and added 12 more points and five more rebounds. The 27 points total he scored are a new career-high, and he did so against a top-10 Kentucky team on the road.

But the lanky in-state forward wasn’t the only Vol to put up career-highs against the Wildcats.

Josiah-Jordan James was virtually non-existent on offense in the first half. He didn’t attempt a field goal and had just one assist and two fouls in 10 minutes of action.

Then the second half started, and James came alive.

The five-star freshman played up to his potential, scoring 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including 2-of-4 from three. He added in seven rebounds and four more assists to give him five on the night. He also blocked a shot and had two steals.

The 16 points are a career-high for James, and he’s now scored 28 points combined in his last two games. James had totaled just 20 points in his previous six games before Saturday.

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Tournament Hopes…Alive?

Are Tennessee’s hopes of making the NCAA Tournament…alive again?

With the stunning win over Kentucky, the Vols are now 17-13 on the year and have earned back-to-back impressive victories. Tennessee now has two “Quadrant 1” wins on their resume, and beating a highly-ranked team on the road should give UT plenty of style points.

The Vols still have plenty of work left to do, and a top-20 Auburn team comes to Knoxville on Saturday. But if Tennessee can somehow shake the bad Bruce Pearl mojo and upset the Tigers on Saturday as well, then the Vols will have strung together three stellar wins to end the regular season.

Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament hopes have been rekindled, but there’s still a long way to go yet.

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