Tennessee didn't have time to blow a double digit second half lead against No. 20 Kentucky like it did in its previous two contests. The Vols were too busy doing the exact opposite. After relinquishing a 14-point comeback to Alabama and a 15-point lead to TCU last week, both on the road, Tennessee (11-11, 4-5) fought back from being down 21 points to upset No. 20 Kentucky (16-6,6-3), 84-77, in front of a raucous season-high 19,295 inside Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday.
"Obviously we've had the wrong formula, getting some leads in the first half and letting them get away," Barnes said after the win. "But I just thought our guys really deserve all the credit in the world, the way they hung in and hustled. They weren't playing very well early, but they stayed with it. They really did. There wasn't one person that played that game that didn't help us some way, somehow.
Rick Barnes' team flipped its blueprint in an unideal way at first, trading a big lead for a 31-14 deficit that seemed insurmountable as the Wildcats knocked down shot after shot. At one point, Kentucky made seven buckets in a row in the first half.
But Barnes believed if his team could fight back to make it a 10-point game before the half, they would be able to stay in the game. The Vols were able to do that and then some. Tennessee shot out on a 22-8 run to close the half, led by 12 Kevin Punter points, to draw within six after being down by as many as 21.
"We talked a lot about how we've got to play for 40 minutes," Barnes said. "Even when we were down, I said, 'We've been here. We've been on the other end. Anything can go bad. How are we going to change it?'"
Barnes got the answer he wanted with offensive distribution, control of the boards and a cold streak by Kentucky. The Wildcats went nearly five minutes without a basket while Tennessee continued to cut down on its lead, eventually taking one of its own with 14:09 to play on a Detrick Mostella 3-pointer that ignited the season-high crowd. Mostella was one of five players that ended in double figures, finishing the game 13 points, but it was Kevin Punter and Armani Moore who stole the show.
Punter led all scorers with 27 points, facilitating an offense that found success behind the arc and scored 14 points off turnovers.
"What can you say about Kevin Punter? I think he's one of the best guards in the country," Barnes said. "I thought he, for the minutes he played ... Kevin only played 37, so he got more rest than I thought he did, but just truly a great effort from anyone."
Moore, on the other hand, filled his box score while Tennessee traded buckets with Kentucky until a six-point run put Barnes' team up 76-70 with 59 seconds to play. The senior ended the night with a double-double, notching 18 points and 13 rebounds with four assists.
"Armani, without question, played the best basketball that I've seen from him so far," Barnes said. "The way he played defensively was outstanding. What he had to do tonight, you're talking about one of the top players in college basketball who he started with, and he had to go inside."
The game, which pitted the SEC's two winningest coaches against one another, was a textbook case in how Tennessee has performed in wins this season. The Vols got to the free throw line 34 times and, while not having an overall great shooting night, made the clutch buckets they needed down the stretch while knocking down 42 percent of their 3-pointers.
"I thought a couple key plays were very big," Barnes said. "I thought at the start of the second half, it looked like we were again starting to rely on (Kevin Punter Jr.) a little bit too much. Admiral (Schofield), we ran a little set that you guys have watched us run. He stepped out and knocked down that 3. I thought that was a big one."
Kentucky was 2-of-11 in the final minutes of the game and Tennessee held on, clinching its biggest win of the season to monumentally rebound from two losses.
"We came out in the second half, and I don't know if it was because we were down, if our guys mindsets were different," Punter said. "I'm not really sure. We came out great in the second half."