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Calipari, Wildcats expect another close encounter against Volunteers in Knoxville

Kevin Knox had a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds in Kentucky’s 74-71 over LSU earlier this week in Baton Rouge. The Wildcats take on Tennessee at 9 p.m. Saturday night in Knoxville (UK Athletics Photo)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Kentucky had to rally to beat Southeastern Conference foe LSU Tuesday night in Baton Rouge. The Wildcats expect a similar battle when they take on Tennessee Saturday night in Knoxville.

We expect them to give us 100 percent,” Kentucky freshman Kevin Knox said. “They lost their last two and of course they’re playing Kentucky, so they’re going to go out there and give it their all. I know it’s going to be a great game. I know every player is going to play their best because one, they’re 0-2, and two, they’re playing Kentucky and everyone plays their best against us.”

The Volunteers (9-4, 0-2) won nine of the first 11 games and lost to North Carolina and Villanova but have yet to win a league encounter. Tennessee lost to Arkansas 95-93 in overtime in its conference opener at Fayetteville and lost to Auburn 94-84 earlier this week. Although the Vols have been struggling recently, Kentucky coach John Calipari isn’t taking Tennessee lightly.

“This will be hard,” Calipari said. “You know Rick (Barnes), what a job he’s done. Villanova, they had them down 15, 16. North Carolina, they had down 10 and were leading most of the game. Auburn they had down 16, 15 I believe. Arkansas they led the whole game, a matter of fact they were up nine with three minutes to go. … They could easily be 13-0.”

The contest already is a sellout, Tennessee’s second of the season, adding more hurdles for the Wildcats to overcome.

“They got no students on campus,” he said. “They opened up the dorms so they could get in (Saturday) by 3 p.m. to be able to be in the dorms and be at the game and the game is sold out. So it’s going to be a war. It’ll be good for these guys to feel this. Playing on the road last game was good, and now you go here and it’s always a difficult game for us. Great environment, but it’s going to be hard.”

Kentucky sophomore Wenyen Gabriel, who has been giving the Wildcats significant minutes off the bench recently, agreed with his coach.

“I just know they have a good crowd, the atmosphere is strong, but they also have a really good team,” he said. “You’re battling against a good team there and you gotta be able to compete and fight. Every single rebound, loose ball is going to matter. Every free throw, everything’s going to matter in this game.”

The 17th-ranked Wildcats (12-2, 2-0) have won three straight since dropping a disappointing 83-75 loss to UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic, including their first two conference encounters, including a three-point victory over the Tigers earlier this week. Calipari liked the way his team battled back, especially after trailing at halftime.

“The second half that we played with some fight (and) we posted the ball,” he said. “We would get up and then we started shooting jumpers again. And you’ve got to understand that by posting the ball doesn’t mean you’re trying to score next to the basket all the time, but you’re making them do something that you can play of off – the other team. “

Calipari praised the efforts of Kevin Knox and PJ Washington in the team’s previous game at LSU. Knox and Washington scored 14 of Kentucky’s last 18 points. Knox, who scored just 15 points in wins over Louisville and Georgia, broke out of a slump with 16 points and 11 rebounds against the Tigers.

“It was great seeing Kevin (Knox) get 11 rebounds and get a double-double,” Calipari said. “Kevin is no longer working with our guards. He works with the big guys, so that’s where he will be the rest of the way. You get over there with those big guys and we’ll worry about guard play later, but I was happy for him. And then we just made the plays down the stretch and made the free throws. Still a lot of breakdowns. Just a lot of young player moves, but it was a great finish to a game just hanging around and then having a chance to win.”

Knox said his teammates and coaches, especially assistant coach Kenny Payne helped him get past the two-game slide and added a change in his mental approach contributed to his double-figure outing against the Tigers as well.

“I’m just focusing on the team, focusing on winning,” he said. “I think I was thinking too much when I was going through my (two-game) stretch. Last game, I came out and focused on defense and rebounding. I think I had eight rebounds in the first half, so if I can just focus more on defense and the team, and not focus so much on offense I think that’ll help the team out. … I had a great game last game and hopefully, I can keep that going.”

Gametracker: Kentucky at Tennessee, 9 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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