LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — It’s been nearly two decades since Tennessee swept Kentucky. The surging Volunteers achieved that feat for the first time in 19 years with a 61-59 win over the Wildcats Tuesday night at Rupp Arena.
The Wildcats (17-7, 6-5 Southeastern Conference) lost back-to-back games for the second time this season and struggled from the field against the Volunteers, who won their sixth straight game and stayed within two games of league leader Auburn in the conference standings.
Tennessee ( 18-5, 8-3) defeated the Wildcats 76-65 a month ago in Knoxville. This time, however, Kentucky kept things close and had a chance to win down the stretch, but two costly turnovers in the final 30 seconds provided a way of escape for Tennessee.
Lamonte Turner’s 3-pointer and a slam dunk by Admiral Schofield on a pair of miscues in the final 30 seconds proved to be the difference in a defensive slugfest that featured 17 lead changes and 13 ties. Even though the outcome was hanging in the balance down the stretch, Turner had no fear taking the decisive trey.
“I’m not afraid to go into the locker room and look my teammates in the eye if I miss (that shot),” Turner said.
Kentucky coach John Calipari took the blame for his team’s two-point setback and added the Wildcats played well enough to win despite shooting just 42 percent from the field and committing 15 turnovers, including three by point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“I should have called a timeout,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I don’t ever like to in those situations, but this is a different team. This team is too young. They’re just too young to know that what’s there and if they get in trouble just call a timeout.
“This team fought, we made a couple errors, a couple plays that I’ll have to go look on tape, but they just kept making foul shots, foul shots, foul shots, foul shots to keep them in it.”
Still, Calipari blamed himself for regrouping his team following Turner’s decisive 3-pointer but lauded Tennessee’s performance down the stretch.
“They came into this building, were up on us a little bit, it was a touch and go game the whole way,” Calipari said. “We get up, it looks like this thing’s ours, and they don’t stop. So give them credit. I’m saying that the chance that we had to win the game fell to me and I let it go. This isn’t anything about any of these guys.”
However, a couple of his guys stepped up and took responsibility for the loss, along with their coach. Gilgeous-Alexander pointed fingers at himself. So did Quade Green.
“It’s my fault,” Green said. “(I) gave up the game-winner.”
Even Nick Richards chimed in and played the blame game.
“As players, we have to take responsibility for our mistakes,” he said.
Since recording an 83-76 win at West Virginia in the Big 12-SEC Challenge, the Wildcats needed overtime to fend off Vanderbilt but didn’t have as much luck coming back in losses to Missouri and Tennessee. Although struggling going into Saturday’s road encounter at Texas A&M, Calipari likes the direction his team is trending.
“We had some guys not play great defensively, but they played well enough, we fought, we did some good stuff, we still had some turnovers that were unnecessary, but we’re on the right track now,” the Kentucky coach said.
Calipari liked the way the Wildcats competed in the low-scoring contest and sweated it out against the Volunteers, who have limited their past six opponents to 65 points or less.
“If this is who we are, I’m feeling good,” Calipari said. “If you notice, we went to a little more grind it out basketball because of who we are. And that was a good defensive team and a good offensive team and we did — like I said, other than them making just about every free throw down the stretch, we did what we were supposed to.”
Green and Gilgeous-Alexander provided most of the scoring load for Kentucky, scoring 15 points each. Kevin Knox followed with 10. Knox missed his first six shots before making his first field goal with 15 minutes remaining.
Gametracker: Kentucky at Texas A&M, Saturday 8 p.m. TV: ESPN
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.