If UT's fans were frustrated, they can only imagine how UT's players must have felt. Playing 33 seconds of solid defense only to see the Big Blue pull a rabbit out of the hat by scoring on a circus shot – a falling-down drive or a forced 3-pointer – must've been excruciating. Still, there was very little the Vols could do to prevent it.
"It was just great plays by Kentucky," Vol head coach Bruce Pearl said. "Did they make a shot without a hand in their face or without falling down from 30-plus feet? They didn't have any easy shots but they made great shots."
With a frown, the coach continued:
"How would you feel being on the other end of that and thinking, 'Gosh! They're making tough shot after tough shot after tough shot.' Some teams would have wilted. This team didn't. We came back and got some great stops, some great rebounds and finished it off."
Indeed. Kentucky eventually ran out of highlight-reel shots. The Wildcats made just one basket over the game's final 4:30, enabling Tennessee to eke out a 63-60 victory.
Tyler Smith, who led the Vols with 15 points, admitted that Kentucky's knack for making unlikely baskets just before the shot clock expired was frustrating.
"Kind of," he said. "But, at the same time, Coach kept telling us, 'They're not going to keep making those shots.'"
Tennessee entered the game 25-3, ranked No. 1 nationally and playing on a home court where it has not lost in two years. Conversely, Kentucky came in 16-10, unranked and minus injured superstar Patrick Patterson. Given these circumstances, some Vol fans assumed the Cats would pose no problem Sunday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena. Pearl entertained no such illusions.
"There may have been some think that, because Patrick Patterson didn't play, the building and the pageantry was going to beat the Wildcats," Tennessee's head man said. "That just wasn't the case, and we prepared accordingly."
Pearl said several Kentucky players "stepped up big," no doubt referring to Ramel Bradley (17 points, 4 assists), reserve Perry Stevenson (13 points, 14 rebounds), Ramon Harris (12 points, 3 steals) and Derrick Jasper (9 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists).
With the SEC East lead at stake, the short-handed Wildcats gave everything they had. Fortunately for Tennessee, the Cats didn't have Patterson.
"You could tell it was a championship game because of the way the players were making plays," Pearl said. "Like Tyler Smith getting the ball to the basket ... or Wayne Chism following up some of our shots with offensive rebounds ... or JaJuan Smith making defensive plays to win this game."
Or the entire Vol team surviving a rash of third-and-long conversions.