No. 11 Tennessee stormed back from a 10-point deficit in the second half to defeat Kentucky 82-71 inside of Rupp Arena on Saturday night.
Freshman guard Keon Johnson led the charge with 17 second half points, while fellow freshman guard Jaden Springer chipped in 14, respectively. The five-star duo was two of four Vols to finish in double-figures. Victor Bailey Jr. scored 11 points while Josiah-Jordan James recorded a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Keion Brooks was Kentucky’s leading-scorer, scoring 23 points on 8-of-16 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds on his way to a double-double. Devin Askew and Olivier Sarr each scored 14 points apiece.
Here’s the five biggest observations from Tennessee’s win over Kentucky:
Horrendous early foul trouble
Tennessee couldn’t have drawn up a worse start to the game. By the time the first media timeout rolled around at the 16-minute mark, John Fulkerson, Santiago Vescovi and Olivier Nkamhoua were all on the bench with two fouls. By the time halftime rolled around, Yves Pons, Springer and Johnson also had two fouls.
For those keeping track at home, that’s six different Vols with two fouls to their name at halftime. Tennessee had 15 fouls called on them in the opening half, leading to Kentucky shooting 13-of-15 from the free throw line, while the Vols were just 2-of-3. The Wildcats led 42-34 at the break as a result.
“I think we came out and our guys, they were wanting to play,” Vols head coach Rick Barnes said. “I thought we were too aggressive, too physical. We’ve talked about when we haven’t, at times, been physical. I am not arguing with one of those calls. I think every call that was made was a legit call… I was just thinking maybe we need some of those.”
Tennessee didn’t get off to a great start in the second half either. Both teams swapped buckets over the first six minutes before Kentucky went on an 8-2 run to take a 58-48 lead with 12:00 remaining, forcing Barnes to call a timeout.
“We had two back-to-back turnovers,” Barnes said of the decision to call the timeout. “Ridiculous turnovers. I said we can’t get back in the game if we’re going to keep turning the ball over. You have to get stops, we have to get a shot every time… when you’re down 10 you can’t turn the ball over back-to-back like that.”
The message was received loud and clear. Tennessee came out of the timeout and immediately went on a 12-0 run to take a 60-58 lead with 8:37 remaining. It was John Calipari’s turn to call a timeout, but his team didn’t respond the way Barnes’ did. The Vols run blossomed to 26-6 to extend the lead to 74-64 with 3:58 remaining.
Johnson and Springer led the charge for the Vols. The five-star freshman duo combined for 22 of the 26 points during the run, scoring 12 straight at one point.
“They bullied us, and they are freshman,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They were the best two guards on the court, whether they are freshmen, seniors, sophomores, whatever, they were the best two. But again, they were best two because they were physical and they bullied us.
“It wasn’t like they were jacking threes and going nuts. They just went to wherever they wanted to on the court and either went into your body and shot or jumped over and you shot.”
Josiah locks down UK’s Keion
While the two freshmen provided the offense, it was James who stepped up and led the charge on the defensive end.
Kentucky’s Brooks was cooking the Vols. He had 21 points with 12:20 remaining in the game, but only scored two points the rest of the way and those points came from the free throw line. James didn’t allow Brooks to make a field goal during that stretch.
“Josiah did a nice job on Brooks, because he was having his way with us,” Barnes said. “Josiah was big on (him). He and Yves Pons both were big.”
James finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds, three offensive rebounds, two blocks, a steal and the team’s second-highest plus-minus of +16. The double-double was the first of his career.
Springer and Johnson turned in the best performance of the season as a result of being aggressive 0n the offensive end. It led to a career-high 27 points for Johnson, as well as a career-high 23 points for Springer.
“What we did in the second half was what we were trying to get done in the first half,” Barnes said. “Trying to get going downhill, 94 feet. And I thought those guys got in a rhythm there where you could just feel that they had that attack mode.”
“That conversation has gone on for six or seven weeks about driving the ball and not stopping,” Barnes said. “Go until you are stopped. Go and be ready to play off two feet. We have been talking about that for a long time. Tonight, I thought the difference was, we were bringing it from 94 feet and getting it going and bringing the ball down the court with some speed and getting it going. With these guys and not just the two freshmen, but (Victor Bailey Jr.) — VJ had a chance to go down the lane and finish a couple plays. We will keep showing them. That plays right to those guys’ strengths. We just need to get consistent with it.”
Springer and Johnson accounted for 60.1% of Tennessee’s points on the night. In the second half, they combined for 31 points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block.
“You have to give credit to coach,” Springer said. “He told us to be aggressive, get down hill and to make things happen. So, we just stuck to the game plan and it worked out.”
“We’ve been trying to start playing faster, but under control,” Johnson added. “I feel like we were converting on their turnovers and whenever we got the ball off rebounds we tried to push the ball up the court as fast as possible and we were converting there as well.”
Barnes’ Vols own Calipari’s Cats
Tennessee’s win marked its seventh win all-time at Rupp Arena. It has now won six out of the last nine meetings against Kentucky as Barnes became the only active head coach with three wins at Rupp. John Fulkerson and Pons became the first Vols to play in three wins in the venue.
“We have come up here with good basketball teams,” Barnes said. “A year ago, we were down with 11 minutes to go and came back and that was one of the great comebacks I have been part of it. Tonight, we were down 10. The credit goes to the players. They were out there tonight. You saw them. It was fun watching them play like that from where I was. It really was. I just love the way they got locked into the game. They were oblivious to everything that was going on other than what went on between the lines. I am just excited for those guys and excited for our fan base.”
“We all know Kentucky is our rival. I don’t think there is any question about that. I am not sure I even knew it when I got here, but people let me know real quick how important the Kentucky-Tennessee rivalry has been starting way back in the 60s. Then from the time that Bernard King spoke to our team, Yves Pons and John Fulkerson heard his comments about Kentucky. I get it. I know what it means to Tennessee being three hours south of here and playing all these years. At this point in time, you all know how much respect I have for John (Calipari) and his program and the way they do things. I am happy for our guys. I am happy for Yves Pons and John Fulkerson. Those guys have had a chance to come up here and win some games. Other than that, I realize our fan base, they love it — they do. I get it. We have a lot more that we can do.”
Tennessee was originally scheduled to turn its attention to a home game with Florida on Wednesday night, but due to a COVID-19 situation with the Gators, the game has been postponed.
The Vols will now pivot and host Georgia (12-6, 5-6 SEC) on Wednesday for an 8 p.m. tip on ESPN2. Georgia is coming off of a 73-70 home win over Vanderbilt.