Kentucky's 6-11 senior center, Jules Camara, hit a 15-foot jumper with 55 seconds left to put the Cats up 72-71 and Tennessee missed on the other end with 20 ticks left. Gerald Fitch knocked down a pair of pressure free throw for Kentucky with 16 seconds remaining and John Winchester missed a three-pointer to end the contest.
Missing from Tennessee's line-up was senior sharp shooter Jon Higgins who fouled out at the 7:38 mark. Higgins left with 17 points and a sizzling 4-of-5 from three-point range. With the Vols best shot suddenly a spectator, Kentucky tightened its defense in the post, denying Ron Slay and Brandon Crump the ball. Crump, who played most of the second half with four fouls, finished the game with just two points on two shots. Slay scored a game-high 22 points (7-of-15 from the field), but was forced to play 39 minutes and exhibited fatigue in the second half while forcing a few shots.
"We pretty much had to play him 39 minutes with Crump getting in foul trouble," said Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson. "He didn't want to come out and we needed him in there."
Two other Tennessee starters — Watson and Derek Stribling — also played down the stretch with four fouls, limiting the Vols options on offense and their aggressiveness on defense. It also kept Kentucky at the free throw-line where they cashed in 28-of-34 attempts. Tennessee scored three more field goals in the game (23-of-46) but made nine fewer free throws (19-of-26).
"I was pleased with the effort they came out and gave," said Peterson in an interview broadcast by the Vol Network. "We just needed to score at the end and couldn't get it done.
"Sending Kentucky to the free throw-line 34 times, it's hard to win. They have a lot of depth and talent. They can go 12, 15 players deep."
Kentucky, which shot 41percent from the field (20-of-48), was led in scoring by Keith Bogans with 20. Fitch had 17 and Camara added 12 points, including six in the final five minutes of play.
With the loss, Tennessee failed to knot the series against Kentucky in Knoxville at 44 apiece, as the Cats assumed a 45-43 lead on the Vols home court. The brightest development for Tennessee was the play of Watson who handled Kentucky's pressure while applying some of his own. Displaying poise beyond his years, Watson finished with 15 points, four rebounds, two assists, three steals and only three turnovers.
"C.J. had a tremendous game," said Peterson. "He keeps getting better and better. C.J. grew up tonight. He should get a lot of confidence from this game."
That confidence, along with the Vols' resiliency, will be put to the test Saturday when Tennessee takes to the road to take on Ole Miss.