Wildcats still far from invincible
The Kentucky fans, with their rabid fan base and accomplished history, scoff at their SEC counterparts at the University of Tennessee and joke that the Vols are a “women’s basketball school.”
Tennessee fans were silent with no response — until about 2:15 p.m. ET Saturday afternoon.
Top-ranked Kansas had already fallen victim at Thompson-Boling Arena earlier in the season, but Tennessee had emotion on its side that afternoon back in January after four players had been suspended just days prior.
The Vols have come down to earth since, losing three of their last five and in danger of falling out of the Top 25 for the first time all season.
This one was an SEC tilt not only between two programs that have disdain for one another, but also for two coaches in Kentucky’s John Calipari and Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl who share a common intense dislike for each other.
There was no way that Tennessee would be able to topple No. 1 and No. 2 in the same season.
Even Pearl recognized it would be highly unlikely.
“This one was bigger,” Tennessee guard Bobby Maze said after the 74-65 upset win Saturday against the second-ranked team in the nation.
The Vols have now won 26 of the last 30 league games on their home floor. They dominated on the glass early and later withstood a furious rally in which Kentucky freshman John Wall brought the Wildcats all the way back from a 19-point deficit to tie the game at 65 with less than two minutes left.
Everyone figured the more talented Kentucky team would pull out the win once it pulled even.
Instead, the Wildcats showed they are mortal.
Kentucky’s youth and inability to make shots from the perimeter — the Wildcats were 2-for-22 from beyond the arc — were exposed while Bruce Pearl’s outmanned team showed more desire and intensity.
They give skeptics reasons to wonder whether the Wildcats can run the table next month in the NCAA tournament.
You can talk about the short turnaround (Kentucky played a home game against South Carolina that didn’t end until 11:15 p.m. ET on Thursday night), but that wasn’t the issue.
“We struggled to make shots,” Wall admitted. “And we didn’t match their intensity.”
It was on display a few weeks ago down in Columbia, when they dropped a road game to South Carolina. But that was viewed as a wake-up call — one that triggered an eight-game winning streak by the boys from Lexington.
Kentucky was 3-for-12 from long distance that night in Columbia and struggled to keep up with one-man show Devan Downey.
But there was no way a Kentucky team with four potential NBA lottery picks would lose to a Vols team that has been decimated by injuries and suspensions.
Tyler Smith is gone after being dismissed after being caught with firearms.
Emmanuel Negedu nearly died prior to the start of the season, and his career is likely over due to a heart issue.
Josh Tabb left school after being suspended.
Steven Pearl has been forced to play meaningful minutes. He logged 14 of them in the 74-65 win against Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.
There he was trying to battle with 6-foot-11, 270-pound manchild DeMarcus Cousins in the post.
Tennessee has now won at least 20 games in each of Pearl’s five seasons in Knoxville.
The Vols have made the tournament every single year in the Pearl regime.
This was a program that struggled mightily in the Wade Houston Era (1989-94). Kevin O’Neill failed in his three seasons in Knoxville, and Buzz Peterson was just two games over the .500 mark in his four years.
Jerry Green has been the only successful coach to come around in the last two decades.
“I never thought that would happen when I came here,” admitted Vols senior big man Wayne Chism of the program’s success.
For the first time in Pearl’s tenure, Tennessee will look up in the standings at Kentucky at the end of the season. However, the Vols will at least be able to enjoy a win against a team expected to compete for the national title.
“I want them to celebrate tonight,” Pearl said.
“They were a team desperate to win,” Calipari said. “They had to win. It was their season.”
The loss likely won’t cost Kentucky a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance — at least not if the Wildcats can finish strong at Georgia, against Florida at home and in the SEC tourney.
“Losing this will wake us up,” Calipari said. “This isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing.”
“We’re 27-2 and No. 2 in the country,” he added.
That’s true — and also vulnerable.