Kentucky walked into Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday afternoon and bullied No. 19 Tennessee, defeating the Vols 70-55 to even up the regular season series at one game apiece.
The Wildcats (8-13, 7-7 SEC) were led by four Cats in double-figures. Freshman forward Isaiah Jackson scored a team-high 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Davion Mintz contributed 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the 3-point line, while Oliver Sarr and Keion Brooks Jr. each scored 10, respectively.
Tennessee (15-6, 8-6 SEC) had three players in double-figures. Victor Bailey Jr. scored a game-high 18 points on 4-of-8 shooting from three. True freshman Keon Johnson scored 15 points on 4-for-14 shooting and senior forward Yves Pons chipped in 10.
“Overall, just not a good performance,” Vols head coach Rick Barnes said following the game. “The fact that we got beat by 15 is probably surprising because I thought we were that bad in terms of what we were trying to get done.”
Here’s a look at the three biggest observations from the Vols’ sixth loss of the season:
Offense struggles … again
Tennessee’s offense struggled mightily once again. After scoring 80 points or more in three out of the last four games, the Vols scored just 55 points against Kentucky to record their fourth game of the season in which they scored 60 points or less.
UT jumped out to a quick 10-8 lead, but after the Cats responded with a pair of buckets to take the lead, Tennessee would trial the remainder of the game as the offense went completely cold. After 10 points in the first five minutes, UT scored 20 points over the final 15 minutes as a result of a near six-minutes stretch without scoring.
“We go from scoring 80-something points a couple of times to 55 today,” Barnes said. “I really believe the first half and those 15 points we gave them, those were probably the difference in the game because it allowed them to get comfortable. They’re going to make some shots because they’ve been shooting the ball well anyway, but we just never put them back on their heels, and even in the second half, believe it or not, we came out one time and Yves had a chance to get a three. He had a good look at it to cut it to 11, we get a stop, and then we come down and Fulky gets fouled, and if we make those free throws it’s (a nine-point game) and who knows. It could have been a different game, but it wasn’t because we didn’t make those shots.
The second half was even worse on the offense end. After shooting 36.7% from the field in the opening frame, Tennessee shot 26.9% in the closing half. The Vols scored on just 25 of their 65 possessions as they trailed in the game for 35:12.
Kentucky explodes on offense
Tennessee’s defense suffered as a result of its horrid offensive play. It didn’t help that Kentucky had caught fire as is and couldn’t miss despite being a poor offensive team for the majority of the season.
Mintz led the charge for Kentucky in the opening half. He scored all 15 of his points in the first as he was a perfect 5-for-5 from the three-point line. It led to a 45-30 halftime lead for the Cats on the back of shooting 60.7% from the field and 66.7% from three.
“First half of the game, I did not think we defended the way we are capable of,” Barnes said. “You have to give them credit. They made shots. But I also thought they got comfortable. We had a couple too many defensive lapses with the wrong guys, transitions threes and giving up too much separation. … Second half, (Kentucky) went to work inside. Whether they scored, they shot 20 percent in the second half, but they were getting fouled. When you are not making threes, you have to manufacture other ways to score. We didn’t.”
Still no Josiah
Sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James did not play for the second consecutive game due to a wrist injury he suffered in the win over Kansas a couple of weeks back. Barnes stated after the game that James tried to give it a go, but just didn’t feel like he could.
“Josiah is extremely talented,” Bailey said of James’ absence. “He crashes the offensive glass, he gets a lot of rebounds for us, he’s got a big body, he’s athletic, he can knock shots down, he can handle the ball, he can run as many positions as we need him to. He’s big for us, he helps us in so many ways and we need him on the floor.”
Tennessee went with the same starting lineup that it did against South Carolina on Wednesday with James unavailable. After exploding for 93 points in the win over the Gamecocks, it didn’t pay off in the same way it did against the Wildcats. Bailey, Pons and Johnson accounted for 43 of UT’s 55 points as fellow starters John Fulkerson and Jaden Springer struggled.
Fulkerson and Springer each scored four points. Fulkerson was 1-for-7 from the field, while Springer was 2-for-11, respectively. Tennessee only received four bench points in addition to their struggles.
Tennessee will now travel to Nashville on Wednesday night to take on Vanderbilt. Tipoff is set for 9 p.m. ET on the SEC Network. The Vols beat the Commodores earlier this season 81-61 in Knoxville.