Cats stun Volunteers

Published 11:50 am Monday, March 11, 2024

Kentucky had its back to the wall and came out fighting and spoiled Tennessee’s Senior Day on Saturday in Knoxville.

In the process, the 15th-ranked Wildcats (23-8, 13-5 Southeastern Conference) earned a double-bye for the SEC Tournament with an 85-81 triumph over the fourth-ranked Volunteers at Food City Center.

Kentucky will be the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament and play the winner of Texas A&M-Ole Miss on Friday at 7 p.m. The Aggies closed the regular season with an 86-60 rout of the Rebels on Saturday.

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It was a stark contrast to an earlier-season meeting between the two border rivals. Tennessee (24-7, 14-4) defeated the Wildcats 103-92 on Feb. 3 at Rupp Arena, sparking an impressive run for the Volunteers that came to an end with Saturday’s loss

“Tennessee won the (regular-season) championship,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after the Wildcats ended the Volunteers’ seven-game winning streak. “This game was, at the end of the day for them was, you know, it’s a Kentucky game which they want to win, but it wasn’t a life-and-death thing for us. Our kids fought, played and competed.”

Calipari didn’t discuss the postseason ramifications prior to the contest, but the Wildcats earned time off after notching their fifth straight victory against a Tennessee squad that had only lost once at home all season.

“We never discussed it,” Calipari said. “I don’t even know if they know, but I did tell them after the game, since you won and we’re going to get a bye, you get Sunday and I give them the rest of today off. And then they get Sunday and Monday. They get three days off.”

The finale wasn’t without drama as the Wildcats let an 11-poiint lead with 55 seconds remaining dwindle down to three with 31 seconds left. Tennessee misfired on a 3-pointer in the closing seconds that could have tied the game, but Rob Dillingham made one of two free throws with 5.9 seconds remaining to seal the deal.

“It was like a statement-type of game — coming into here beating them,” said Kentucky forward Justin Edwards. “They beat us last game (at Rupp Arena).”

Behind Edwards, the Wildcats used timely outside shooting and connected on 15 3-pointers to overshadow Dalton Knecht’s 40-point outing in his final home game at Tennessee.

“Knecht went absolutely bonkers on us,” Calipari said.

Reeves tied Reed Sheppard for team-high scoring honors with 27 points. Reeves scored 11 points in the opening half and made two 3-pointers. Reeves and Sheppard combined for 10 3-pointers. Sheppard had 22 points in the second half, including drilling six-of-seven from long range.

“We came out, competed, gave a 100 percent effort out there,” Reeves said. “The young guys pulled through. We talked about it before the game. You know we got to come out before energy ready to fight ready to punch. That’s what they did.”

The Wildcats connected on six 3-pointers in the first half and got a big performance from Edwards, who made three of those shots from long range. Edwards led Kentucky with 13 points in the opening half. Edwards made back-to-back 3-pointers and drained another long-range trey and scored nine points in the final four minutes of the first half.

Edwards finished with 16 point and Dillingham added 11 to round out four players in double figures for the Wildcats.

Knecht led the hosts with 19 points in the first half and scored nine of those in the final three minutes to make the score 31-27 at the break.

“I thought we were way, way, way too emotional,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We weren’t focused on the game and they executed. We were very impatient. We’ll learn from this game because there will be a lot more bigger games as the season goes on. And we can’t let this get the best of us.”