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Tennessee Basketball was too drained to play defense in loss to Kentucky

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They almost had enough left in the tank for another miracle close out. After beating three straight ranked teams in three straight de facto elimination games to win the SEC regular season championship, Tennessee Basketball returned home to Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center mentally drained to face the red-hot Kentucky Wildcats.

Against a red-hot top 15 opponent on Senior Day, their fatigue seemed to catch up with them, particularly on defense, and with under a minute to go, they trailed by 11. Then came an 8-0 run followed by three straight Kentucky turnovers. All of a sudden, UT had the ball down 84-81 with 21 seconds to go.

They couldn’t finish the job. Josiah-Jordan James missed a great look from three. Kentucky got the rebound, hit one free throw with just under six seconds to go and ruined Senior Day for Tennessee Basketball, winning the game 85-81. Zakai Zeigler, who hit a three and a two plus and-one on the 8-0 run, missed a three as time expired.

There’s only one stat you need to know to understand why Tennessee Basketball lost at home to the Kentucky Wildcats in the Vols’ final 2023-24 regular season game: 38-5. That’s the massive advantage UK had in scoring from its bench against UT’s bench.

Rick Barnes has been playing his starters far too many minutes all year. Even with that, they managed to exert everything they had left in the tank to beat the Auburn Tigers, Alabama Crimson Tide and South Carolina Gamecocks, the latter two on the road, to clinch the SEC.

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However, returning home to Knoxville, Tenn., it was going to be hard to maintain that success, particularly against a team on a roll like Kentucky. John Calipari’s team goes 10-deep. With fresh legs and needing this win more, his team was able to go 15-of-29 from three and 16-of-18 from the free throw line.

There was nothing Tennessee Basketball could do. The Vols couldn’t even come a heroic 40-point effort from Dalton Knecht, a very efficient 17 points and nine assists from Zakai Zeigler and 11 points, eight blocks and five rebounds from Jonas Aidoo. They had their formula to win.

As a team, they shot 12-of-36 from outside. That’s nothing to really worry about. For the first time in the Barnes era, though, they lost a high-profile game because of lack of defense. There was no stopping Reed Sheppard off the bench, who went off with 27 points. Antonio Reeves also had 27. Justin Edwards had 14, and Rob Dillingham had 11.

So what do we take from this game? Well, honestly, nothing. This is not indicative of the defense the Vols will play in the NCAA Tournament as they are about to go on a six-day rest. That last minute was not indicative of something extra they had either, as Calipari is the worst coach possible at closing out games.

All this means is that Tennessee Basketball won’t complete a sweep of Kentucky and that the No. 1 seed is now in doubt. So what? They got their SEC Championship, and the focus now should be staying fresh for the Big Dance while not losing their rhythm. They should’ve been able to do that in this game.

Rocky Top, ranked No. 4 in both polls, finishes the regular season 24-7 and 14-4 in league play. The ‘Cats, ranked No. 15 in the AP Poll and No. 13 in the Coaches Poll, finish 23-8 and 13-5 in league play. Both teams have double-byes and won’t play until Friday in the SEC Tournament next week in Nashville at Bridgestone Arena.

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One Response

  1. Don’t make excuses. A Champion finds a way to “pull up your boot straps” and win. Even with a shooter like Knecht, teams cannot be successful when only 3 players are making the bulk of plays. Our coach never got the correct player mix on the floor today so there was little continuity on either end of the court. They let themselves get in a hole too deep to get out of.

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