Ultimately, Kentucky's strategy – dribble for 28 seconds, then run a set play just before the shot-clock expired – enabled the Wildcats to be competitive but not successful. Tennessee made just enough plays in the final minutes to win 63-60 Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The win allows the top-ranked Vols to match the program record for single-season victories while improving to 26-3. Their 12-2 SEC record locks up a share of the East Division title and moves them within one victory of clinching a share of the overall league title.
"If it was easy to win a championship, anyone could win a championship," UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "It is NOT easy ... and it's not always pretty."
He got that right. If Sunday's competition had been a beauty pageant, the sponsors would've refused to award the crown and sash to anyone. It was THAT ugly. It was precisely the kind of basketball Vol fans had to endure during O'Neill's three-year run (1995-97) as head man. It wasn't fun then, and it isn't fun now. The difference? Tennessee played ugly under O'Neill and routinely lost. When Tennessee plays ugly under Pearl, it still manages to win more often than not.
Fortunately for the Vols, basketball is about points, not style points. Even those were in short supply on this afternoon, however. Tennessee raced to a 20-5 lead nine minutes into the game and appeared headed for a lopsided victory. The Vols scored just 36 points over the next 27 minutes, however, and found themselves trailing 57-56 with just over four minutes to play.
"We wasn't hitting shots no more," sophomore Wayne Chism explained. "At the beginning of the first half we wasn't missing. Layups was going in, free throws was going in. Everybody was hitting everything, and we felt confident."
Down 20-5 and playing without injured superstar Patrick Patterson, Kentucky was supposed to fold at this point so Tennessee could pay tribute to Lofton and Grunfeld with an impressive victory. The Wildcats were unwilling to cooperate, however.
Kentucky chipped away until it had narrowed the gap to 34-27 by halftime. The Cats then outscored the Vols 8-2 to open the second half, closing within a point at 36-35.
Time after time the Wildcats would score with a second or so left on the shot clock. Time after time the Vols would misfire with 25 seconds or so left on the shot clock. It seemed that the more patient the Big Blue became, the more impatient the Big Orange became.
"Our shots was rushed and we was missing," Chism said. "Their shots was not rushed. They was running the clock out, like their offense is set for, and they got good end-of-the-clock shots."
Like several previous opponents, Kentucky neutralized Tennessee's dynamic transition game by forcing the Vols to rely on a half-court offense that requires considerable execution and patience. The Big Orange appeared to be lacking in both areas Sunday, although Chism disputed that idea.
"I can say we are getting more patient," he said. "Sometimes, we're TOO patient. We try to make one extra pass and we end up making three more extra passes and we'll not get a basket out of it."
Patient or not, Tennessee wound up beating Kentucky at its own game – defense.
Ramar Smith scored on a dunk off a nifty Tyler Smith assist to give Tennessee a 58-57 lead with 4:24 to play. The Vols then stole the ball on back-to-back Kentucky possessions, and a Tyler Smith tip-in boosted the lead to 60-57 with 3:07 remaining.
Ramel Bradley missed a 3-pointer for Kentucky, then Lofton hit one of two free throws, widening the gap to 61-57 with 1:41 to go. JaJuan Smith stole the ball from Bradley on UK's next possession, and Lofton scored on a drive to produce a 63-57 lead with 1:15 left.
Derrick Jasper drained a 3 that narrowed the gap to 63-60 with 1:01 left but that concluded the scoring. Jasper missed a subsequent 3. Ramar Smith missed the front end of a one-and-one with 15 seconds left but Joe Crawford missed a potential game-tying 3 just shy of the buzzer.
Tyler Smith finished with 15 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks and zero turnovers to lead the Vols. Lofton chipped in 14 points, despite attempting just five shots. He was 3 of 5 from the floor – 1 of 2 beyond the arc – but made 7 of 8 foul shots.
Bradley scored 17 points to pace Kentucky. Perry Stevenson came off the bench to add 13 points and 14 rebounds.
Tennessee prevailed despite being outshot from the field (45.7 to 40.7 percent), outshot from 3-point range (40.0 to 25.0 percent) and outrebounded 33-31. The Wildcats also recorded more assists (14) than the Vols (13).
In the end, though, Tennessee's depth probably proved decisive. Bradley, Crawford and Jasper played 40 minutes each for the Big Blue. No one played more than 34 minutes for the Vols, who outscored UK 7-3 over the final 4:45.
"Forty minutes, I think, was the difference," Pearl said. "Some of their guys had to play 40 minutes. We were in the 30s and as a result (of being fresher) we were able to make plays."
The Vols made just enough plays, as it turned out, to send their fans home thinking about Lofton and Grunfeld, rather than O'Neill.