LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — After missing two 3-point attempts in the first half, Kentucky freshman Eric Bledsoe told coach John Calipari he had lost confidence in his shot.
Calipari’s message, to Bledsoe’s surprise: Keep shooting, anyway.
Bledsoe’s second half resurgence, along with yet another stellar performance by fellow freshman guard John Wall, helped No. 3 Kentucky fight off No. 12 Tennessee for a 73-62 victory Saturday night.
Down 52-50 midway through the second half after a three-point play by J.P. Prince, Kentucky (24-1, 9-1) scored the next 10 points — six of them by Wall — to give Calipari his first win over Bruce Pearl in a Southeastern Conference matchup. The two met annually when Calipari coached at Memphis.
Wall was the game’s leading scorer with 24, one off his career high set earlier this season against UConn. However, Wall acknowledged the true star of the game was Bledsoe, who got all 16 of his points in the second half and clinched the victory with three clutch shots in a row: a fastbreak layup followed by two 3-pointers.
Bledsoe credits a halftime chat with Calipari, who told him to keep shooting even if he misses.
“He was like, ‘If you get it, shoot it,'” Bledsoe said. “Everybody else will crash the boards.”
In the second half, though, they didn’t have to. Kentucky’s backcourt led a 20-4 run that buried the Vols.
“Eric showed so much courage in what he did and how he played,” Calipari said. “…I tell him, ‘You don’t have to shoot a 3. You have to be prepared to shoot a 3.'”
Bobby Maze led the Vols (18-6, 6-4) with 15 points. Melvin Goins had a career-high 14.
Although the Wildcats pulled away at the end, the two teams battled for the lead most of the night. Kentucky kept the Vols in it partly due to poor free throw shooting, particularly by DeMarcus Cousins, who connected on just one of eight attempts.
Cousins, who was going for an eighth consecutive double-double, managed 12 rebounds but scored only five points. The Kentucky record remains 10 straight, set by Jim Andrews in 1973.
Much of the focus going into the game was on the other big man, Tennessee center Wayne Chism, whose right ankle was in a boot at practice this week because of an injury he sustained in the Vols’ loss to Vanderbilt.
Chism didn’t start but made an immediate impact when he entered less than four minutes in. He nailed a 3-pointer on his first touch, then added a reverse layup to ignite 12-1 Tennessee run.
While the Vols got their big man back, the Wildcats briefly lost theirs during the Tennessee scoring stretch. Cousins, who had barreled into the media table during a play underneath the basket, was sidelined for 2 minutes with an apparent injury to his left leg.
Cousins was healthy enough a few minutes later to turn in one of the highlight plays of the game. After DeAndre Liggins missed a long jumper, Prince seemed to have both hands on the ball for an easy rebound. But Cousins robbed him in mid air, dunking it back into the hoop to give the Wildcats their biggest early lead at 20-14.
Although Chism’s ankle held up fine, he was sidelined with a lower back bruise late in the first half after committing a hard foul. He was back on the court for the start of the second half but got only two of his 12 points after intermission.
Two free throws by Liggins put Kentucky up 30-29 at halftime.
Pearl said Kentucky won because it deciphered the Vols’ zone defense. Bledsoe’s performance made the Wildcats’ practically unguardable considering Tennessee already had all it could handle keeping up with Wall, one of the nation’s most skilled players.
“John Wall is great,” Pearl said. “He plays effortlessly. He’s got a high basketball IQ. Wall was able to slice and dice us and did what he wanted to do.”
Kentucky turned the ball over 15 times, but Calipari said earlier this week that he could live with a number like that if the team played aggressive defense. It did that, holding Tennessee under 40 percent from the field.
Pearl’s Tennessee teams have finished above Kentucky in the SEC standings four straight years — the only program in conference history to do that. However, Kentucky’s win keeps them in sole possession of first in the SEC East, one game ahead of Vanderbilt.
Even in a lackluster season for the Wildcats last year that resulted in an NIT berth, the games against Tennessee provided highlights. UK won both convincingly, including in Knoxville, where former Wildcat Jodie Meeks set a single-game team record with 54 points. Meeks attended Saturday’s game and was introduced to loud cheers from the capacity crowd.