The Big Blue is known for a long bench it uses to wear down opponents. Sure enough, Tubby Smith played 11 Wildcats Tuesday night. The six reserves combined for just 17 points, however. Tennessee's Bruce Pearl played just four reserves but they accounted for 31 points.
Bottom line: Kentucky's starters outscored Tennessee's starters 68-58 but Volunteer reserves clearly outplayed their Wildcat counterparts.
Vol coaches keep what they call a plus/minus chart on each player. Basically, it shows how much UT outscored the opponent (or was outscored by the opponent) while that player was on the floor. Many of Tennessee's reserves showed up on the positive end of the plus/minus chart Tuesday night.
"Most of the guys on the bench were very heavy on the plus side in the first half," Pearl noted.
With Duke Crews scoring 10 points, Jordan Howell 6, Ryan Childress 3 and Josh Tabb 2, UT's backups outscored Kentucky's backups 21-6 in the opening 20 minutes. That helped the Vols take a 40-30 lead to intermission.
Howell was especially productive. In addition to 6 points, he contributed 2 assists, 2 steals and 2 rebounds in 11 first-half minutes. He was so effective that the Vols hardly missed starting point guard Ramar Smith, who played just 10 first-half minutes due to foul trouble.
"When Ramar got two fouls Jordan Howell played very aggressively in the first half and helped us build our lead," Pearl noted, adding that Howell and Childress "were out there during Jordan's little run."
That "little run" wasn't so little, actually. With the scored tied 21-21, Howell hit the first of five consecutive Vol 3-pointers. Childress drained one moments later. Chris Lofton hit a couple on back-to-back possessions, then Howell buried another, capping a 15-5 spurt that lasted just 2½ minutes but produced a 36-26 lead.
Tennessee's adept use of its reserves also enabled the Vols to apply tremendous defensive pressure for much of the game. The fullcourt press gave the Cats plenty of trouble, but so did UT's halfcourt trap.
"We forced them into 19 turnovers," Pearl said. "They made some plays but so did we. We didn't just sit back and take what they gave us. We dictated with our defense at times in the drop-back."
Amazingly enough, a depth-poor Tennessee team beat a depth-rich Kentucky team by making better use of its bench. Nine Vols played between 13 and 32 minutes, and all were productive. That's a credit to them, but also to Pearl and assistant coach Tony Jones, who handles most of UT's substitutions.
"Tony Jones does a terrific job helping me with the distribution (of minutes)," Pearl said. "A lot of thought and planning goes into that."
That thought and planning produced a big ‘W' Tuesday night.