"To beat those best teams on your schedule you've got to play well early," UT coach Bruce Pearl noted. "You've got to hit them in the mouth first and let them know that you're there."
Tennessee didn't land the first punch - Kentucky jumped on top 4-0 - but the Vols landed the first power shot. Their 18-0 counter punch got the crowd on its feet and got the Big Blue on its heels.
"The first four minutes always set the tone of the game," UT sophomore Scotty Hopson said. "The seniors and myself knew we had to come out and be strong, get the game started off well."
Pearl tried his ninth lineup combination of the season against Kentucky. This one featured Brian Williams and Wayne Chism inside, with J.P. Prince, Hopson and Bobby Maze on the perimeter. Whether the personnel grouping, the crowd or the opportunity to knock off the NCAA's second-ranked team was responsible, Tennessee came out smoking. Even the Vols were surprised to go up 18-4 early.
"A little," Hopson said. "I didn't expect the game to be that far out of reach at that point in time. But we were clicking on all cylinders and playing great."
Pearl has been trying to instill a sense of urgency in this team all season. Apparently, he succeeded with his Kentucky pre-game remarks.
Here's the pep talk, as he recalled it:
"I told the team: 'How do you want this season to be remembered? It's not going to be a great year unless we beat Kentucky. If we beat Kentucky, now we've got a chance to have a great year.' They understood. They wanted it really badly."
Another factor in Tennessee's fast start was a pesky zone defense. The Vols shut down UK for a half with a 3-2 zone Feb. 13 in Lexington but the Cats riddled the Big Orange defense in the second half en route to a 73-62 victory. This time UT went with a matchup zone that limited the Big Blue to 24.1 percent shooting (7 of 29) in the first half, including 9.1 percent (1 of 11) from 3-point range.
"All of that credit goes to Coach Shay," senior J.P. Prince said, referring to Jason Shay, the UT aide who scouted Kentucky. "He did a great job with the scout. We're not a zone team, so the first time we played them there were mistakes. The first game we competed and had a chance to win but we made some mistakes in the second half and they made some wide-open 3s.
"In this game you saw our adjustments didn't allow them to get those open shots. That's why they struggled from 3. We didn't give them those great looks that they had before."
Pearl, a firm believer in man-to-man defense, conceded that the matchup zone proved surprisingly effective against the enormously gifted Wildcats.
"We're not talented enough and I'm not a good enough coach to impose our will on the opponent," Pearl said. "But we are smart enough, experienced enough and talented enough to say, 'OK, this is what they're not good at, so this is what we've got to do.'
"We don't play zone. That wasn't a great zone. We're not a zone team. But Syracuse would love to hold that team (UK) to 35 percent, and they're a zone team."
Whether it was the zone, the new lineup, the fired-up crowd or a combination of the three, a notoriously slow-starting Tennessee team punched Kentucky in the mouth at the start of Saturday's game en route to an unforgettable victory. At least one Vol was not surprised.
"I'm never surprised," Prince said. "When we make shots, we're a very good team. We just have to hit the outside shots. We usually start slow. When we have a good start we play great throughout the game. That was the key, just starting better."