Cats win, get season sweep over Tennessee

Published 1:41 pm Monday, February 20, 2023

BY KEITH TAYLOR

Kentucky Today

It was like old times at Rupp Arena Saturday.

Kentucky honored its 1996-98 teams and went on to complete its first regular-season sweep of Tennessee since 2012 with a 66-54 victory over the 10th-ranked Volunteers. Kentucky defeated Tennessee 63-56 on Jan. 14 in Knoxville and continued to improve its NCAA Tournament resume with four games remaining before the postseason.

“I keep telling (my team) at this time of the year, you got to have more fun than the other team,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. ”You have to have more fun than the other team. You got to be enjoying playing. I told them your whole life you’ve enjoyed basketball. You I know we had the 1996, ’98 and ’97 teams (here).

“They know what this is to go lose a home game or lose a game or lose two or lose to Mississippi at home. They know no one else is going through that except those guys and our guys and my teams in the past. I just said, ‘You’ve got to enjoy this stuff. Enjoy it.’”

Unlike the first part of January, when the Wildcats were mired in a rare slump and lost four straight games, Kentucky bounced back from two straight losses with two consecutive victories to better position itself for the postseason.

The Wildcats (18-9, 9-5 SEC) notched their third Quadrant 1 victory of the year and did so by producing perhaps their best defensive showing of the season against the Volunteers, who were coming off a 68-59 upset of top-ranked Alabama on Wednesday.

Kentucky limited the guests to just 19 points in the first half, Tennessee’s lowest first-half scoring output since a loss to Florida on Feb. 1. Tennessee outscored the Wildcats by eight points in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to offset the Volunteers’ sluggish performance in the first half.

Kentucky was shorthanded again, playing without senior guards Sahvir Wheeler (ankle) and C.J. Fredrick (ribs), but got a big lift from freshmen Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston. Wallace, who had scored just nine points in his previous two games, tied teammate Oscar Tshiebwe for team-high scoring honors with 16 points.

Livingston finished with his first career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds and out-rebounded Tshiebwe, one of only three players who have held that distinction during the past two years and swiped a defensive rebound from Tshiebwe in the opening half.

“He was a beast,” Tshiebwe said of his freshman teammate. “You’ve just got to be a beast and go fight a beast. Chris is a beast, especially when he took it (from me). He’s a beast. I’m the biggest beast.”

The recent emergence of Livingston has been a positive for the Wildcats.  Calipari compared his playing style to former Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

“(He) is really smart (and) cares, like too much and was listening to too many voices,” he said. “… Building your confidence, he was doing it in practice, a then you got to have a demonstrated performance in that game.”

Livingston did just that against the Volunteers and added, “each game I play is going to get better and better.”

“I just waited on my turn and kind of just like stay stay with the process,” he said.

His patience paid off big for the Wildcats on Saturday.

Kentucky returns to action on Wednesday night, visiting Gainesville to face Florida. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. and the game can be seen on ESPN.