With 43 seconds left and the game still up for grabs, two botched foul shots and a blown layup proved disastrous as the Vols suffered a 75-65 loss to Kentucky that extended their losing streak to four games.
Tennessee led 54-53 entering the game's final seven minutes but back-to-back 3-pointers by Julius Mays capped an 11-4 spurt that gave the Wildcats a 64-58 lead with 4:20 remaining.
Trailing 71-65, Tennessee got a big break when Mays was called for a flagrant foul (throwing an elbow) with 42.7 seconds left. That gave Josh Richardson two free throws, with a Vol possession to follow. Basic math indicates that two foul shots and a basket would trim the six-point lead to two.
Richardson missed both free throws, however, then Trae Golden blew an unchallenged layup on the ensuing possession. Given this reprieve, Kentucky tacked on the game's final four points at the free-throw line to win by double-digits.
"Tough, tough, tough go," Vol head man Cuonzo Martin said on the post-game show. "Josh is obviously hurting about it. Of course, he wanted to make the free throws but they didn't fall for us."
Noting that his players "did a great job with their effort, their focus," the coach added: "They just came up short."
They came up short for the fourth time in a row. And, for the second time in a row, they allowed an opponent to shred Tennessee's defense in the second half. Whereas Alabama hit 62.5 percent (15 of 24) in a 68-65 win Saturday at Tuscaloosa, Kentucky drained an even hotter 65.0 percent (13 of 20) coming out of the break Tuesday night.
"Two games in a row," Martin mused. "We've got to do a better job once we get away from our bench in the second half of locking in, focusing in and communicating amongst each other. I think that's the next step for our guys."
Tennessee started well, scrapping its way to a 15-12 lead and quieting the huge crowd at Rupp Arena. The Vols rallied from a 34-31 halftime deficit to go up 54-53 on a 3-pointer by freshman Derek Reese with 7:16 remaining. The Cats outscored the Big Orange 22-11 the rest of the way, however, to post the victory.
"They made the plays down the stretch, made some big shots and won the ball game," Martin said.
Jordan McRae cracked the 20-point barrier for the fourth game in a row, scoring 23 to pace the Vols, now 8-7 overall and 0-3 in SEC play.
"I thought he did a good job of scoring the basketball," Martin said. "Now we just need him to step up a little bit more defensively. What happens is, they were going at him on the defensive side of the ball and he's got to do a better job of locking in, sitting down and trying to guard guys."
Reese came off the Tennessee bench to add 9 points on 3-of-6 shooting, including 1 of 2 from beyond the arc. Sophomore post Jarnell Stokes managed just 4 points and 5 rebounds before fouling out in 15 minutes of court time. Backup Yemi Makanjuola fouled out in 14 minutes.
Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer scored 17 points to lead the Wildcats, now 11-5 overall and 2-1 in league action. Freshman Nerlens Noel chipped in 12 points, 9 rebounds and 6 blocks. Sophomore Ryan Harrow added 12 points and Clarksville native Alex Poythress, another freshman, contributed 10.
Despite the four-game losing streak, Martin expects his team to be up for Mississippi State Saturday at 4 in Thompson-Boling Arena.
"Obviously, anytime you lose games you're discouraged as a team," the coach said. "But the guys continue to come back with their hard hat on and work hard and we'll keep going."