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Tennessee Basketball lets emotions get in the way in loss to Kentucky

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At halftime, it was apparent that if No. 4 Tennessee Basketball were to beat 13th-ranked Kentucky, Dalton Knecht would have to carry the load.

The Vols trailed the Wildcats 33-29 at the break, and Knecht had 19 points. The other four starters were 2-for-17 from the field and the team was a miserable 7-for-30 overall.

Knecht scored a career-high 40 points, but it wasn’t enough as the Wildcats held off a furious rally to defeat UT 85-81 Saturday night at Thompson-Boling Arena, avenging an earlier loss to the Vols at Rupp Arena last month.

“I told the guys we were way, way too emotional at the beginning of the game,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, citing a Wednesday win at South Carolina that gave UT the SEC regular-season title outright and Saturday’s Senior Night for three starters.

“We weren’t very good offensively in the first half. We had too many shots that were not high-quality shots. We can’t let our emotions get the best of us.”

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Down 68-54 with less than nine minutes left, and 84-73 with 55 seconds to go, UT (24-7, 14-4 SEC) cut the margin to 84-81 with 31 seconds remaining. But two missed 3’s sealed the deal for Kentucky (23-8, 13-5 SEC).

“Am I surprised?” Barnes said of the emotions running too high. “Not really. We’ve had a brutal three weeks.”

Those weeks included wins over Texas A&M, Auburn, Alabama and South Carolina.

Kentucky proved too much, however. The Wildcat got terrific offensive performances from Antonio Reeves (27 points) and Reed Sheppard (27 points on 7-of-10 3-point shooting). UK also got 16 points from Justin Edwards.

For UT, Zakai Ziegler scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half and added nine assists. Jonas Aidoo had 11 points, eight rebounds and five blocks. And Josiah-Jordan James added eight points and 10 rebounds. But he missed all three 3s in the final 3 minutes to stall the comeback.

Despite Knecht’s huge game, Barnes offered this critique: “Dalton has got to do a better job of getting his teammates involved.”

Perhaps. But his teammates have to do a better job hitting shots. If not for Knecht, UT might have lost by 20.

“Dalton Knecht went absolutely bonkers on us,’’ said Kentucky coach John Calipari.

Yet, Kentucky played one of its best defensive games of the season, holding UT to 37.8% shooting, and 12-of-36 (33.3%) from beyond the arc.

Calipari thought his team might have a mental edge over UT, which had just won the SEC outright.

“It’s Kentucky, so they want to win,” Calipari said, “but it’s not life or death.”

While Tennessee Basketball has had a special season, the loss to Kentucky underscored three concerns.

  1. The Vols at times are too reliant on Knecht. The supporting cast can’t go AWOL, like it did the first 20 minutes against Kentucky.
  2. While Tennessee’s defense ranks among the nation’s best, it has often struggled against dribble-drive guards. UK killed UT with constant penetration to the basket, either for layups or kickouts for open 3s. Kentucky hit 51.7% (15-of-29) from long range, including 12-of-18 bridging the first and second halves. UT’s perimeter defense must do a better job stopping guards from going downhill.
  3. UT’s bench has been inconsistent. It was non-existent against Kentucky, whose bench outscored the Vols’ reserves 38-5. Tobe Awaka, Justin Gainey and Jahmai Mashack had five points and nine rebounds in over 43 combined minutes.

That doesn’t mean Tennessee Basketball can’t make a run in the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m really hoping this one, we learn from it,” Barnes said.

Calipari hopes it’s a momentum boost for his team, although he made it clear what Kentucky’s goals are.

“We’re playing better,” Calipari said. “We’re healthy now. But you know the only tournament that matters to me is the one the next week.”

That would be the NCAA Tournament – a tournament that Kentucky and Tennessee Basketball appear well equipped to make deep run.

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