Tennessee (20-6 overall, 11-4 SEC) has lost three of its last four games, the last two coming on its home court. Kentucky (19-10, 9-6) undoubtedly won its way into the NCAA Tournament by knocking off the 11th-ranked Vols.
The key was Rondo, a 6-1 sophomore who sliced up Tennessee's defense with such surgical precision that the Wildcats shot an amazing 78.9 percent (15 of 19) from the field in the second half. Rondo routinely drove through the middle of UT's defense for layups. When he met resistance, he kicked the ball off to 6-10 Randolph Morris, who finished with a game-high 22 points. Rondo added 16. Each man shot 8 of 9 from the floor.
"We had no answer for Rondo off the dribble," Pearl said, later adding: "When Rondo was able to get it deep, he did. When he didn't, they pulled it out and they were patient offensively – only 19 shots in the second half. They did a terrific job with their smaller lineup."
The Vols used a 15-0 spurt to build an early 21-7 lead. They outplayed Kentucky throughout the first half but led just 45-38 at the break. Pearl noted that his team "should've gone to the half with a sizeable lead."
Tennessee inexplicably came out in a fog to start the second half. Kentucky hit a couple of quick 3-pointers to pull within a point, and the game was a nail-biter the rest of the way.
A Joe Crawford 3-pointer gave Kentucky a 76-73 lead with 4:26 to go. C.J. Watson hit a 12-footer for Tennessee but Morris answered with a dunk for Kentucky. Dane Bradshaw made one of two free throws but Rondo scored on a short jumper that gave the Cats an 80-76 lead with 2:18 remaining.
Bradshaw scored on a putback with 1:49 to go. JaJuan Smith missed the front end of a potential game-tying one-and-one with 52 seconds left but Crawford missed a long jumper, and Tennessee got the ball back down two with around 30 seconds left.
Smith lost the ball in traffic and Kentucky got the loose ball to Crawford, who was fouled with 10 seconds left. He missed the front end of a one-and-one but C.J. Watson's potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer was just off the back iron.
Watson, Chris Lofton and Smith finished with 15 points each for the Vols. Smith was 6 of 7 from the field and 3 of 4 from the line. Ironically, Smith's only missed free throw and his only turnover both occurred in the game's final minute.
Ultimately, the difference in the game was Rondo. Making his performance all the more remarkable was the fact he was "under the weather" according to his coach.
"Rondo stepped up when he wasn't feeling well," Kentucky's Tubby Smith said. "With his penetration, he can really get by anyone."
Wednesday night he got by EVERYONE.