Sometimes it is the size of the dog in the fight that matters. Or, in the case of Tuesday night’s basketball game at Thompson-Boling Arena, it’s the size of the Cat.
The top-ranked Big Blue is off to an unprecedented 26-0 start that includes a 13-0 SEC record. The Big Orange slips to 14-11 and 6-7.
Though vertically challenged – no starter taller than 6-feet-8 – Tennessee scrapped its way to a 35-35 tie on the backboards. The Vols struggled to score over Kentucky’s lengthy defenders, however, sinking just 2 of 17 shots from 3-point range.
"It’s always frustrating (to miss shots), but when you’re playing a team that has like seven guys that are over 6-9 looks are going to be tough,” senior captain Josh Richardson said. “We just had to capitalize, and we didn’t do that tonight."
The Vols made 19 of 39 shots from inside the arc but Richardson thought they should have done better, especially when Kentucky was making its game-clinching rally in the final nine minutes.
"I don’t think we were executing as well as we were in the first half,” he said. “I think our aggression was there; I just don’t think we were running our stuff like we know how to.”
The fact Tennessee gave the Big Blue a big scare was little consolation.
"I think we played hard,” Richardson said. “I think we hung in there for a little while. But I’m not huge on moral victories, and we still lost the game."
The Vols were in position to notch one of the biggest upsets in program history for much of the evening. Kentucky was on top 35-31 at the break and still led by just four points (48-44) after Kevin Punter broke free for an easy layup off a long inbounds pass with 9:10 remaining.
The Big Blue’s length and depth appeared to take over at this point as it routinely got inside for layups, dunks and foul shots in pulling away down the stretch.
Freshman Devin Booker opened the 18-4 finish with a pair of free throws, then Andrew Harrison dunked off a Kentucky steal as the lead swelled to 52-44. What happened next might have been the biggest possession of the game. Fouled with one second on the shot clock, freshman Tyler Ulis missed the second of two free throws. Six-foot-11 Karl-Anthony Towns got the rebound, however, scored and was fouled. His free throw completed a four-point possession that bumped the lead to 56-44 with 6:55 to play.
If that wasn’t the dagger, it arrived moments later when 6-foot-10 Trey Lyles scored on another putback, bumping the lead to 58-44 with 5:12 remaining.
Richardson finally stopped the bleeding with a nice drive but the Vols went cold from the free-throw line at this point. Willie Carmichael missed two foul shots, then Armani Moore and Richardson missed the front end of one-and-ones. Meanwhile, Harrison made four free throws, then Lyles scored on a layup and a tip as Kentucky completed its game-ending 18-4 run.
Tennessee normally is the fresher team in the closing minutes but that clearly was not the case on this night.
“I just don't think you’re going to wear that team down with as many weapons as they have,” Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall said of the Wildcats. “They keep fresh bodies in there. They do a great job of rotating them in and out. We tried to wear on them but they probably wore on us at the end of the day."
Booker came off the Big Blue bench to lead the way with 18 points. Harrison added 14.
Punter hit 7 of 12 field-goal tries and led the Vols with 14 points. Richardson chipped in 10.
Ultimately, Tennessee played well enough to beat most opponents on its schedule. These Wildcats are a different breed, however – bigger and stronger than the typical foe.
“It’s all about boxing out and trying to be tougher than the other team,” Moore said, “but sometimes you come up short.”
The Vols came up short, all right … by about four inches per man.