Tennessee entered Rupp Arena in Lexington on Thursday hoping to become just the third team to sweep Kentucky in a season since John Calipari took over the program in 2009. Instead, the Vols were smacked by a hungry Wildcat team anxious for revenge after falling to Rick Barnes' squad in Knoxville on Feb. 2.
A combination of offensive inefficiency and a 10-0 Kentucky run to start the second half buried Tennessee (12-14, 5-8) before it could fight back into the game. After clinging to a lead until midway through the first half, the Vols' solid defense gave way to exhaustion felt by the lack of production on offense in the loss. Let's take a look at some of the key factors in the game:
1. Needing Complements
Rick Barnes spoke at length during his weekly press conference on Tuesday about other players stepping up around Kevin Punter and Armani Moore, the two workhorses who essentially carry the Vols offensively. He stressed the need for the surrounding players to complement his two stars, and Tennessee simply wasn't able to generate anything on offense away from the duo. Punter and Moore combined for 40 points despite Punter only making one bucket in the first half, while the entire rest of the team combined for 30 points. With two freshmen (Kyle Alexander and Shembari Phillips) starting and another (Admiral Schofield) seeing significant minutes, Barnes is hoping his young cast of players can start to learn and garner in-game experience as the team puts one eye toward the future.
2. The Willis Show
Tennessee had no answer for Kentucky forward Derek Willis, who turned in one of his best performances of the season on Thursday. Willis connected for 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting and nearly single-handedly erased a commendable first half defensive effort from Tennessee. The Vols failed to get a hand in his face many times and gave Willis way too many open looks from behind the arc. He finished a whopping 7-of-11 from 3-point range in 25 minutes of play. Not to be outdone, Jamal Murray ended the night with a game-high 28 points himself, but it was Willis' second half surge that really put the game away.
3. Trey Trouble
The Vols must be really good from behind the arc to have a shot at beating a team as talented as Kentucky, and on Thursday it just wasn't there. Tennessee went 5-of-14 from 3-point range and deep threat Detrick Mostella did not make a 3-point shot. The only player who made more than one bucket from that range was Kevin Punter, who sunk two in seven attempts. That won't get it done, and Barnes knows it.
4. The Drought
Tennessee fought toe-to-toe with Kentucky early in the first half, but a stretch of extremely poor basketball put the game just out of reach. Tennessee missed 11 straight shots in a 9:02 span that culminated in a 15-1 Wildcat run that brought the energy back into Rupp Arena and put Tennessee down 21-12. The Vols were able to survive and stick within six points at halftime, so it wasn't as detrimimental as it could have been, but it contributed to the short flurry that slowly snowballed into an avalanche.