Tennessee (12-4, 3-1) sustained its first loss in the SEC since a 53-50 defeat at Georgia on Jan. 21, 2010, after Kentucky (15-2, 4-0), behind a scintillating performance from A'dia Mathies, who torched the Lady Vols for 34 points, prevailed 61-60.
"She had a tremendous game," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "She had more than half of their points. We were switching different people off on her. We were giving her too easy touches. We wanted her to work to get touches.
"We just weren't aggressive enough on her before the catch. We were trying to defend her after the catch. That's really tough to do. We knew on the last shot she was going to take it. In the huddle, we wanted to trap her when she caught the ball at the top. But we never went for her. No one went out and trapped her.
"They didn't use a screen that last play. They ran a 1-4 flat, but we still had the plan for someone to come up and trap her and it didn't happen."
"I saw an open lane," Mathies said. "The previous play we tried to run some ball screens, and they trapped it. Coach called a timeout and he gave a one-four flat.
"I just took a one-on-one approach, got past (the defender), I saw a couple trees, and I shot it, and it went in."
Williams dribbled the length of the court and got a good look at the basket just beyond the free throw line, but the ball hit the front of the rim.
The Tennessee players, who had battled back from 12 points down with 7:46 left to play and led by three points with 1:24 left in the game, looked stunned. Since it was their first defeat in SEC play after a string of 36 consecutive wins, that was to be expected.
After the walk through the handshake line, the Tennessee players headed to their customary prayer circle, and the Kentucky players let loose with celebration.
"I'm very proud," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I'm extremely proud of our players. They played their tails off. They could not have played any harder, or with any greater effort, or with any greater resolve, or with any greater character to bounce back from disappointment tonight. I am extremely proud."
Kentucky had seized control of the game behind Mathies, who dominated in both halves and kept the Wildcats ahead, albeit slightly, when neither team could muster much offense in the first half.
Both teams shot poorly in the first half - 29.0 percent for Kentucky and 28.1 percent for Tennessee - with Mathies the exception for the Wildcats as she went 6-11 for 14 points and Vicki Baugh tallying eight for the Lady Vols on 4-5 shooting.
"I had to come in and rebound and be a leader on the floor," Baugh said.
Baugh did just that with 16 points and nine rebounds for the game and, combined with Glory Johnson's 17 points and seven rebounds, it seemed as if it would be enough despite the struggles to score by the perimeter players.
Tennessee guards Shekinna Stricklen and Meighan Simmons misfired throughout the first half - Tennessee ended up sitting both midway through the second half - and the Lady Vols scoring drought could have been fatal early, but the Wildcats also were having trouble hitting shots.
Tennessee led briefly, 4-2, at the 17:51 mark of the first half, when Stricklen found Baugh on an in-bounds play. Kentucky took the lead, 6-4, at the 16:36 mark of the first half on a jumper by Mathies.
That was followed by four ties and then a Tennessee lead, 20-18, when Ariel Massengale got a steal, passed the ball to Stricklen and got it back for a layup at the 10:06 mark of the first half.
That would be the last time Tennessee scored a field goal in the first half. Kentucky was misfiring, too, and the Wildcats didn't take the lead, 21-20, until Mathies got a stick-back at the 2:43 mark.
The Lady Vols got one more point before halftime when Alicia Manning hit one of two free throws. Two Bria Goss free throws and a stick-back by Keyla Snowden accounted for the 25-21 score at the break.
"It filtered throughout the whole team," Coach Pat Summitt said. "We have to be able to go on the road and have composure and know exactly what we have to do.
"We have to knock down shots, we have to play great defense, we have to get on the boards. Across the board we didn't do the things we needed to do to win this game."
Kentucky held onto its lead to start the first half, although Tennessee continued to hover and twice got to be one point thanks to a jumper from Kamiko Williams and a layup from Johnson to trail 33-32 with 14:03 left.
Williams gave Tennessee another ball handler on the floor and a stickier defender, and she logged 12 effective minutes in the second half in what may be a harbinger of things to come for Tennessee, especially as Stricklen and Simmons continue to struggle from the field.
"They just weren't making plays," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "They were missing open shots and not making plays. Simple as that."
Williams, a junior guard who just returned last week after ACL rehab, teamed with Ariel Massengale to handle point duties, and DeMoss indicated the freshman needed to start hunting more shots.
"Ariel played super," DeMoss said. "She did what we needed her to do. She took care of the basketball for the most part. She didn't really have any bad turnovers.
"The only thing we have to get Massengale doing more is looking to score more for us. The days are over where you go 4-of-5 offensively. She has to look to score more for us and she has in some games, but it has to be consistent for her."
Massengale tallied six points with five assists and four boards in 36 minutes of play, the most of any Lady Vol for the game.
Massengale had just one turnover in the first half in 16 minutes of play and zipped through Kentucky's vaunted pressure. Johnson (three) and Stricklen (four) combined for seven of Tennessee's first-half miscues with freshman Isabelle Harrison accounting for three more when she was swarmed in the paint and put the ball on the floor.
"I think the first half we turned the ball over too much," Warlick said. "That's one part of our game we have to get better at. When you turn the ball over your opportunities to make plays are limited.
"Credit Kentucky's defense, they made us play fast at times and made us rush, with a combination of that and the tempo the game was being played, we were just playing too fast. We didn't make plays and if we can cut down on our turnovers we will be a much better basketball team."
Tennessee did just that in the second half - the Lady Vols had just seven after the break - but couldn't contain Mathies, especially in the final 12 seconds.
"She has been very good in those situations and that's why recruiting is so important," Mitchell said. "That was not a real genius coaching move right there. That was a great player making a big-time play. That's the formula.
"That's how Tennessee has won so many games over the years – players making great plays. We did a good day's work when we signed A'dia Mathies. She really is a great player."
Mathies accounted for one of Kentucky's largest leads of the game when she swished a trey with one second on the shot clock and was fouled by Baugh to put the Wildcats ahead, 48-37, with 9:23 left.
"I wouldn't call it the smartest play on my behalf, and I wish I could change it, but I can't," Baugh said. "She is just a smart player and forced a foul at the time."
Mathies was turned sideways and off-balance when she let go of the shot and the crowd - it was overwhelmingly Kentucky blue with orange sprinkled about - erupted. At that point, Tennessee could have folded - Mathies also hit a pair of free throws with 7:46 remaining to give Kentucky a 12-point lead, 50-38 - but the Lady Vols mounted a comeback.
Baugh got to the basket, hit the layup and was fouled to cut the lead to 50-41, and after Stricklen converted two free throws - she was 4-4 from the line - and Johnson got a steal and a layup, Tennessee trailed 52-45 with 6:35 left,
Simmons drained a three in transition and then after Stricklen grabbed a defensive board, she passed to Simmons, who passed back to Stricklen, who hit the three to cut the lead to 54-51 with 4:53 left.
"Our two scorers, Meighan and Kinna, hit shots," Warlick said when asked how Tennessee got back in the game. "They hadn't hit a shot all night, they finally made two threes and got us back in the game.
"I think our defense got us back in the game. I think Ariel hit a layup on an and-one play. We have to have our scorers step up and make plays and they didn't do much tonight but did step up at the end when we needed them."
Massengale knotted the game at 54 with a layup and free throw with 3:25 left in the game.
Mathies got the lead back for Kentucky with two free throws, and Stricklen tied it with a layup on a back-door cut. She followed that play with a steal and pass to Johnson, who was fouled. Johnson made one of two free throws for a 57-56 lead with 2:38 left.
Mathies lost the ball on the next possession as Tennessee trapped her, and Baugh hit the layup on an assist from Massengale for a 59-56 lead with 2:06 left. Goss made one of two free throws to pull Kentucky to within two points, 59-57, at the 1:50 mark, and Baugh had to leave the game after tumbling to the court in the paint.
Johnson hit one of two free throws after being fouled for a 60-57 lead with 1:24 left and then was replaced by Baugh because Johnson had injured her right elbow.
Mathies got an offensive board and tip-in with Johnson on the bench, and Johnson reentered with 36 seconds left and Tennessee clinging to a 60-59 lead.
With 28 seconds left, Stricklen drove to the paint and was called for an offensive foul, which caused Tennessee's bench to howl in protest. Kentucky got the ball, and Mathies hit the game-winner for the 61-60 final.
"She played up to her talent level tonight," Mitchell said. "She bounced back from a devastating run Tennessee put on us.
"We had complete control of the game and that was a devastating run. For a team to have the character to come back, even when it was not looking good, and win was great. A'dia really, really played well."
Mitchell afterwards saluted his entire team for its effort throughout the game and ability to withstand the surge from Tennessee.
"That was a great college basketball game," Mitchell said. "Two really tough teams went at it tonight and played hard. We have so much respect for Tennessee. They played such a tough game.
"I couldn't be prouder of our players. They earned every bit of it. It went down to the last shot and we were able to come out on top. I have a lot of respect for Tennessee. They are very well coached, play hard, and I thought our players played extremely hard. It's a really proud night to be a Kentucky Wildcat."
The Wildcats fans erupted when Pat Summitt walked onto the court before the game, and a pack of photographers swarmed the Tennessee bench to get closer as Mitchell and Summitt greeted each other.
"I tell Pat before every game that I wouldn't be out here without what she did," said Mitchell, who was once a camp worker and graduate assistant for Tennessee. "I tell her that every time. I told her that tonight. It's true tonight and will be true every time we meet before a game.
"I told her I loved her and obviously thinking about her with what she's going through. I really appreciate our fans tonight. They did exactly what first class people should do.
"They gave her a great ovation and that meant a lot to me. I appreciated our fans doing that. It was a great atmosphere tonight. I appreciate everyone buying tickets and filling the whole place up. It was awesome tonight."
Kentucky next will play South Carolina, which lost 58-48 to LSU, leaving just the Wildcats and the Tigers undefeated in the SEC. LSU comes to Knoxville next week.
Mitchell pointed out it was early in the SEC season with a lot of basketball left to play.
"Emotionally, you have to understand it could've gone either way," Mitchell said. "You really have to keep it in perspective that it was a well-played, hard-fought game on our home court and we came out with a one-point win. There's nothing for us to do but enjoy it tonight, but you really have to stay focused here.
"If we lose tonight and win at South Carolina, we are 4-1 in the conference, and if we win tonight and lose at South Carolina we are 4-1 in the conference.
"This is the grind of the SEC. It was an emotional night, of course, it was a tough, tough game, but you have to keep it in perspective here. We didn't win anything here tonight except a Thursday night game in the SEC."
Tennessee leaves Lexington with the realization that much remains to be done, with consistency in output of effort and focus seemingly topping the coaches' list.
"We are still doing some things that honestly, concern me," DeMoss said. "Doing things that we did in the Stanford game, the Baylor game and the Virginia game. We have got to turn the corner as far as our mental toughness.
"Right now, we had some players that didn't play very tough for us tonight. That is a big concern for us. Our perimeter game is going to have to get a lot tougher right now."
Kentucky had two players in double figures led by Mathies' 34 and 11 points from Keyla Snowden off the bench. Goss chipped in with eight points.
Kentucky shot 34.5 percent (20-58) overall, 19.0 percent (4-21) from the arc and 77.3 percent (17-22) from the line. The Wildcats had 16 turnovers, five assists, nine steals and four blocks.
Tennessee had three players in double figures led by Stricklen with 17 points. Baugh tallied 16 points, and Stricklen added 11.
Tennessee shot 38.3 percent (23-60) overall - and 50.0 percent in the second half - 28.6 percent (2-7) from the arc and 63.2 percent (12-19) from the line.
The Lady Vols had 20 turnovers, 10 assists, eight steals and five blocks.
Tennessee prevailed on the boards, 41-37, but Kentucky had 12 second-chance points to 10 for Tennessee. The guards' ability to swipe the ball from Tennessee's rebounders led to either key Wildcat baskets or extra possessions. When that happens, it is typically because the perimeter players aren't boxing out for Tennessee, and the opposing guards get an unimpeded lane to the paint.
"We talked about their ability to rebound in our scouting report and how well their guards crash the boards," Johnson said. "Their guards crashed the boards hard tonight, just like our coaches told us they would.
"Next time we have to make sure to put a body on somebody."
The Lady Vols will practice Friday and Saturday and host Vanderbilt at home on Sunday. Baugh seemed mystified by the team's sluggishness to start Thursday's game
"There is no reason for that," Baugh said. "We have been working hard ever since we got back from Christmas break. Every day, hard.
"It's very frustrating that we did not apply it to the court. We are going to pay for that."
INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE
Tennessee had gotten away with Shekinna Stricklen and Meighan Simmons not shooting the ball well. That ended Thursday at Kentucky when the two combined to go 1-10 in the first half, 3-8 in the second half and 4-18 overall.
It wasn't exactly surprising. Simmons has been in a season-long shooting slump, and Stricklen has struggled intermittently. Both had found over ways to help the team - getting on the boards and playing solid defense but against Kentucky their offensive funk seemed to seep into their overall play.
It was a very physical game - Stricklen was bumped and held on her cuts, and it seemed to wear her down. Simmons also was a target of the Kentucky defense and midway through the second half both had been rendered ineffective and were sitting on the bench.
Alicia Manning was inserted for defense and board play, but after Kentucky twice stripped her of the ball after Manning had zero turnovers in the first half, Mickie DeMoss got up and looked down the bench.
Simmons returned with Stricklen on her heels and they both hit key threes to drive the comeback from 12 points down, but the way they played in the last seven minutes is how both need to start the game.
"Our two scorers, Meighan and Kinna, hit shots," said a clearly frustrated Holly Warlick after the game. "They hadn't hit a shot all night, they finally made two threes and got us back in the game.
"We have our scorers step up and make plays and they didn't do much tonight but did step up at the end when we needed them."
It should have been enough but Tennessee couldn't get a last stop on A'dia Mathies, who logged 36 minutes - the same as freshman Ariel Massengale for Tennessee - and accumulated 34 points.
The notion that Tennessee's players are tired needs to be retired. Johnson played just nine first-half minutes with two personal fouls. Stricklen got six minutes of rest in the first half. Simmons had a five-minute break before halftime.
Mathies, meanwhile, played 18 first-half minutes and nearly outscored Tennessee. She had 14 points. The Lady Vols had 21 at the break.
The good news for Tennessee is that help is on the bench. Taber Spani is expected back - her right leg bounces so hard on the bench with restless energy that it looks as if she is going to grind a hole in the court - and Vicki Baugh came off the bench and provided a spark on both ends.
It also may be time to end the Baugh-off-the-bench experiment. It made sense - Baugh had been inconsistent and prone to foul trouble, but, combined with Johnson, it makes Tennessee incredibly imposing in the paint, not to mention athletic.
"She brought great energy for us," Pat Summitt said. "She was the only one who was stepping up and being very consistent with her play. We needed more people to do the same."
Baugh, like Johnson, also gets it. She was peeved after the game.
"We have yet to show a game for 40 minutes and that's the most frustrating thing about it," Baugh said. "These games we should win. If we don't play for 40 minutes, we are not going to win.
"A lot of us just put on the jersey and think that's what it's going to take, but it takes a lot more hard work on every possession."
Tennessee was inches away from celebrating after the game. Mathies hit a shot with 4.2 seconds left, and Kamiko Williams got a good look at the other end but the ball hit the front rim. It might have been for the best. A make would have masked the deficiencies that Tennessee still has to address.
Johnson said it best after the game when talking about Mathies' final shot.
"If we went with the scouting report, we would have pushed her left instead of right," Johnson said. "Mathies did a great job of getting to the basket. We are not going to look at that one play, though.
"We are going to look at the missed layups, the missed free throws, the turnovers, and everything that had happened before that final shot because it should have never been a one-point ball game."
There is plenty to look at for the players (missed shots) and coaches (substitution patterns).
While the starters got rest in the first half - the coaches used all 10 available players - all three freshmen were on the floor late in the first half.
Tennessee needed more experience on the floor, and it showed with a series of turnovers - four in four minutes, including three from freshman Isabelle Harrison, who was stripped of the ball when she put it on the floor in the paint. Harrison did grab three boards in just five minutes, but she would have benefited from Baugh or Johnson in the paint with her.
To Tennessee's credit, Warlick and the players placed the blame solely on the Lady Vols. The officials called a style that the Wildcats need with their swarming defense - if a lot of whistles blow with contact, the defense is not very effective - and Summitt had a lot to say to the officials throughout the game.
It is past time for Summitt to get a technical foul, but in a close game she likely didn't want to undermine her team's comeback.
Tennessee's posts were hacked at the rim while shooting and rebounding, and the guards had escorts who clutched handfuls of uniforms as they tried to make their cuts. Ariel Massengale was called for a travel after being taken down because the defender had the front of her jersey knotted in her hand.
Johnson adjusted in the second half by ripping away rebounds - the fans didn't like it - but she had smaller guards trying to snatch the ball and her aggressiveness worked, as they backed off.
Warlick, Baugh and Johnson were peeved after the game, and their ire was directed inward.
"We have a defensive problem," Baugh said. "We don't have a defensive stopper. It is hurting us. We can't let the best player of every team come in and have an ‘A' game.
"That's one component we are going to have to step up. Our defense has to step it up."
Baugh was referring, of course, to Mathies.
Tennessee can look at the tape later and see reasons to be encouraged on defense. Kentucky went late into the shot clock and, outside of Mathies, was having trouble even getting a good look at the basket. Two starters for Kentucky didn't even score.
Tennessee also played stout defense in its man schemes, switched well, communicated and guarded ball screens.
Mathies' game-winner came after she couldn't use a ball screen and Matthew Mitchell had to call timeout with 12 seconds left. He set up a play Kentucky had yet to run in a game this season, and Tennessee's coverage busted when Mathies went right - Tennessee wanted to force her left and then bring help - and she hit the leaner.
Kamiko Williams, who just returned last season, was on Mathies and in hindsight perhaps Johnson should have been, but the intent was to force Mathies left and into Johnson or Baugh. When she got around Williams to the right, that forced Johnson to step up and she offered passive resistance with her arms up rather than go for the block.
Still, Williams had a good showing considering her long layoff. She switched to point to give Massengale a break, handled the ball well, battled on the boards to keep balls alive and had two steals.
Tennessee is not yet at full strength but will be with Spani headed back relatively soon and Williams rounding into game shape.
If this game was any indication of Baugh's resurgence, Tennessee becomes better going forward.
It was a disappointing loss for the Lady Vols because they felt like they buried themselves. But a January defeat is only fatal if a team doesn't fix the deficiencies.
"We put ourselves in a very difficult position," Mickie DeMoss said. "We didn't start the game ready to play for whatever reason. We didn't knock down shots. We had open looks, we didn't knock them down.
"We put ourselves in a position where we were 12 down. We were even lucky to have a chance to come back and win this ball game. We just weren't good enough to close it out tonight."
The key word is tonight.
Tennessee knows what it did wrong. It knows Spani is waiting on the bench. The coaches saw how Baugh responded, and one of the best players on the floor is just a freshman in Massengale.
"We can watch film and we can assess what we did and did not do," Summitt said. "It's always good to have the film session because that let's everyone know what they can do better for this basketball team."
Holly Warlick, Glory Johnson, Vicki Baugh
Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell
Wildcats A'dia Mathies, Keyla Snowden