LEXINGTON, Ky. --- Two steps forward, one step back.
Fans of Kentucky basketball are getting used to a dizzying waltz with their Wildcats this season, their latest backstep coming in a 76-74 overtime loss Wednesday at Tennessee.
During Thursday's edition of the league coaches teleconference, Tubby Smith seemed at a loss for words to describe his seventh-ranked, but struggling Kentucky squad.
"We're coming off a very, very tough loss to Tennessee," he said. "But we've got to regroup... because it looks like everybody in the league is pretty evenly matched. When you're on shaky ground like we are and have lost a close game --- let one get away --- we have to get our confidence back."
Kentucky (15-6, 5-4 SEC) travels to Baton Rouge on Saturday to face LSU (12-10, 2-7).
Smith said the Cats must start taking better care of the ball if they want to avoid more losses like the one in Knoxville. Kentucky turned the ball over 20 times against little or no defensive pressure from the Volunteers. Eighteen of those turnovers came from the starters, including four each from Keith Bogans, Tayshaun Prince and Gerald Fitch.
Prince had a key walking violation with the Cats leading by two in overtime, and Fitch was charged with a turnover late in the extra period when Prince couldn't reach a bounce pass into the post. Kentucky scored only four points --- one field goal and two free throws --- in the five-minute overtime session.
"You can't turn the ball over those last few minutes of overtime," Smith said. "You've got to get a good shot every time down court, and that didn't happen. But we'd done that all night long. We really hurt ourselves and gave Tennessee a number of opportunities by not taking care of the ball.
"When the game's tight and on the line, and you don't execute on every possession, it can be devastating."
Smith said his team's turnovers were magnified by a stunning lack of defense. Kentucky held a 39-30 lead at the break, but allowed Tennessee to shoot nearly 70 percent in the second half.
It marked only the 13th time in Smith's five years and 164 games at UK that an opponent finished the game over 50 percent from the field. The Vols shot 53 percent, while the Cats managed only 45 percent and came up empty on 18 of 25 3-pointers.
"We were not getting it done defensively," he said. "You can't put that kind of pressure on yourself to make a shot every time down the floor."
** Asked about his decision not to play starting point guard Cliff Hawkins in the overtime period, Smith said he opted to go with the players who were hot at the time -- Gerald Fitch and Chuck Hayes.
"We probably could have used Cliff's aggressiveness and penetration at the end, but there at the time I'm thinking let's go with what we have here, the group that got us into overtime," Smith said.
** Asked if he could discuss Rashaad Carruth's situation, Smith declined to comment. The freshman guard failed to play at Tennessee due to a disciplinary matter, the third time this season he's been in the coach's doghouse. He played only seven minutes in a 64-61 home loss to Alabama after oversleeping and missing a class.
"No, I can't talk right now," Smith said. "We're going to discuss that with him this afternoon, so I don't want to discuss it at this time."