Kentucky is Still Kentucky

This wasn't supposed to happen. This was going to be a special night in Tennessee basketball lore.

This was a night in which coach Ray Mears (1962-77) and long time Voice of the Vols John Ward (1965-99) were honored with banners hung atop Thompson-Boling Arena.

This was a night in which fans wore orange and white in different sections for a checkerboard-end-zone affect.

This was a night in which coach Bruce Pearl wore an orange blazer in honor of a trail blazer, Mears.

And this was a night in which over 24,000 would see Tennessee sweep Kentucky for just the second time in 28 years.

But when all was said and done, there was one stark reminder: Kentucky is still Kentucky.

Guard Rajon Rondo parted the orange sea with penetrating drives, center Randolph Morris dominated inside with a man-among-boys performance, and the Wildcats made another NCAA Tournament statement with an 80-78 victory before the sixth crowd in excess of 20,000 at the place Kentucky coach Tubby Smith called Boling-Thompson Arena.

Maybe Smith's reference was fitting, for the outcome was the reverse of what was expected.

Tennessee, which won its first 13 home games this season, blew a 14-point lead for a second consecutive loss in the friendly confines.

The Vols led Arkansas 63-49 before a second-half meltdown. They led Kentucky 21-7 early before the Wildcats stormed back to take the lead early in the second half.

It was a Cat fight the rest of the way, leaving scratches on a Tennessee team that has now lost three of its last four games, and perhaps some confidence along the way.

``I still think we're a confidence bunch,'' insisted Pearl, agitated in part because his post-game press conference was delayed some 15 minutes by confusion over which coach went first.

Pearl was also agitated by what transpired in the final minute.

With Kentucky up by two points, UK's Joe Crawford missed three-pointer and the Vols and had a chance to tie or win. But JuJuan Smith turned in a second straight late-game head scratcher. Pearl disdained a timeout, wanting point guard C.J. Watson to set up a play that was called from the sideline. Watson never had a chance.

Smith inexplicably dribbled and dribbled and dribbled until Kentucky stole the ball, sealing the deal.

Pearl has been exceptional in setting up plays out of a timeout. Why no timeout with 20 seconds left?

``I wouldn't expect Smith to over dribble,'' Pearl said. ``I certainly, in hindsight, could have called timeout.''

Late in the Arkansas defeat, Smith took an ill-advised shot in the final seconds that cost Tennessee a chance to win that game.

Moments before his dribble fest against Kentucky, Smith, who had 15 points on 6 of 7 shooting, made a key steal against Rondo at the top of the key. As Smith raced the other way for what would have been a game-tying layup, Rondo appeared to grab Smith from behind. Officials called the foul, but didn't deem it intentional.

Smith went to the line and missed the front end of a one and one.

Pearl clearly wasn't happy with the call.

Asked if Rondo's foul should have been ruled intentional, Pearl said: ``I didn't think Rondo touched him. If he did, it's an intentional foul. If (Rondo) gave him a slight push from behind, why take away a layup?''

Rondo said his foul wasn't intentional because he was slapping at the ball. Right -- and Kentucky's colors are orange and white. Rondo clearly reached at Smith from behind. How much contact was made is debatable, but it has become evident that the only way to solicit an intentional foul is to tackle someone at halfcourt.

Actually, that's what Florida's Lee Humphrey did to Chris Lofton late in the game at Gainesville. Still, no intentional foul.

Perhaps that's why Pearl more than once said at his press conference: ``We don't get much respect.'' He could have added …. ``from the officials.''

The turnover was one of Rondo's few mistakes. He returned the form that opponents feared earlier this season. The Vols had no answer for his ability to drive off the dribble. He hit 8 of 9 shots, canning all six in the second half, during a 16-point performance.

Why was Rondo so effective against UT this time as opposed to the game in Rupp Arena last month when he was 5 of 12 for 11 points?

`They went to him a lot more,'' Pearl said. ``They got smaller. They went to the spread and we didn't make adjustments on the floor. You can't call a timeout every time to make an adjustment.''

Rondo and Morris were a combined 16 of 18 from the field as Kentucky shot a blistering 15 of 19 (79 percent) in the second half.

``Competition brings out the best in you and exposes you,'' Pearl said. ``It did both to us (against Kentucky).''

Tennessee's perimeter defense was exposed. Its interior defense was exposed. Its lack of rebounding was exposed. And Smith's late-game decision making was exposed.

At the end of this lost night for the Vols, a weary Pearl headed courtside for his post-game radio show. As he emerged from a tunnel, some 45 minutes after perhaps his most devastating defeat as a Tennessee coach, more than 100 fans who stayed around began to clap, louder and louder.

Pearl thanked the fans for their support and apologized for the defeat.

``Tennessee deserved better,'' Pearl said. ``Our crowd deserved better.''

The fans would have none of it. What Pearl has brought to Tennessee basketball has been exhilarating. He's the reason 24,108 showed up Wednesday night. He's the reason six home crowds have exceeded 20,000. He's the reason the Vols have won the SEC East Division outright. He's the reason UT is ranked No. 11. He's the reason fans have taken bus trips to see the team play on the road. He's the reason for renewed interest in a men's program that had been called a graveyard for coaches.

Pearl need not apologize. He's got the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament coming up soon. He's got more games to coach, more games to win.

Don't apologize, coach. Tennessee fans know the real score.

Half-Hearted Defense Hurting Vols

Tennessee's defense has been half-hearted in some halves.

Kentucky's 79 percent shooting in the second half isn't the only bad 20-minute stretch of defense for Tennessee. Auburn hit 67 percent (24 of 36) in the second half. Alabama made 76 percent (19 of 25) in the first half. Florida hit 60 percent (18 of 30) in the first half of the first meeting. LSU converted 76 percent (19 of 25) in the second half. Oklahoma State made 71 percent (17 of 24) in the second half en route to 63 percent for the game. Even East Tennessee State made 63 percent (22 of 35) in the second half.

That's seven times an opponent has shot at least 60 percent in a half against UT.


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