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Rocky finish: Wildcats falter in the second half in loss at Tennessee

PJ Washington goes up for a shot in the first half of Kentucky’s 76-65 loss at Tennessee Saturday night in Knoxville. Washington didn’t play most of the second half because of cramps in his left leg. (UK Athletics Photo)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Kentucky has had a hard time topping Tennessee at Rocky Top and Saturday night was no exception.

For the third time in their last five tries, the Wildcats left Thompson-Boling Arena with a loss, this time a 76-65 setback to the Volunteers, ending a modest three-game winning streak.

Winless in its first two conference encounters, including a blowout 94-84 setback to Auburn earlier this week, Tennessee (10-4, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) outscored Kentucky 47-28 in the second half for its third straight win over the Wildcats in Knoxville.

“They out-toughed us, they just threw us around (and) it’s embarrassing,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “… we just got manhandled by men. We couldn’t grab rebounds and we got shoved out of the way on post-up (moves).

“I hate to say it, sometimes you gotta get hit in the mouth to learn. The question is: Do they understand what just happened to them? And I believe they do.”

No. 17 Kentucky (12-3, 2-1), which survived its first road test of the season earlier this week with a 74-71 victory at LSU, couldn’t duplicate the feat against the Volunteers, who dominated the second half from start to finish to overcome a 37-29 halftime deficit.

The Wildcats were without PJ Washington for most of the final half, who left with a leg cramp with 12:33 remaining. Washington finished with 13 points and scored 11 of those in the first half.

“As soon as we had PJ out of the game, we had no shot at winning,” Calipari said. “When PJ couldn’t go, we couldn’t do some of the stuff we planned on doing. PJ just went at them (in the first half and that’s him. When PJ went down, they saw the wounded animal and just went right at us.”

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes agreed.

“PJ Washington is a big-time player,” he said. “There’s no doubt early in the game, PJ Washington was a man. He was going over the top of us … it was a big loss (for them) obviously.”

Kentucky leading scorer Kevin Knox, coming off a double-double performance against the Tigers, struggled and tallied just six points, the third time in the past four games. Knox finished 1-for-9 from the field and failed to score in the second half.

Quade Green led the Wildcats with 14 points. Green didn’t score his first basket until the 2:53 mark of the opening half. Green scored two of the Wildcats’ final five baskets of the first half as the Wildcats turned a slim 28-27 lead to 37-29 at the break. Kentucky made five of its last eight field goals of the opening half.

Kentucky led for all but one minute in the first half and Washington picked up where he left off after scoring 14 of 18 points in the second half of the team’s 74-71 victory at LSU earlier this week. Washington scored 11 points in the opening half, followed by Wenyen Gabriel, who made all three of this three-point attempts and finished with nine points in the first half. Gabriel finished with 11 points.

“I liked our first-half,” Calipari said. “I was surprised we were able to do some of the stuff we dd in the first half. The start of the second half, we were literally standing with cheerleaders in a bunch of shots. A shot goes up and I’ve got a guy standing next to cheerleaders. … For a half, we looked OK, then in the second half, we didn’t look too good.”

Nick Richards, who had just two points in Kentucky’s first two conference games, scored six points and grabbed four rebounds in the first half against the Vols. Richards failed to score in the second half.

The Volunteers stayed close by making four 3-pointers in the first half, including two by Admiral Schofield, who led Tennessee with 11 points in the first 20 minutes. Schofield led all scorers with 20 points, followed by Grant Williams with 18 points and Lamonte’ Turner with 11.

Barnes said the double-digit loss to Auburn earlier this week didn’t make a difference in the outcome.

“We had to worry about ourselves,” Barnes said. “We got our butts kicked (against Auburn) and tonight we had to at least get our own self-respect back. I didn’t even know that team. I was really, really disappointed. I’m happy for the guys. They got it done after that game.”

As for Kentucky, Calipari hopes it will be another learning experience for his squad.

“It’s a lesson for young guys and we move on,” Calipari said. “When you’re playing the game and one team wants it more than the other, and only one or two playing that way, you’re losing the game. That team is going to win. That’s what I want my team to be.”

Technically speaking: Calipari and Barnes were each slapped with a technical foul in the second half. Calipari said he received a technical foul because he was “out if the box” while Barnes wasn’t sure why he received a technical.

“This is a hard game to officiate,” Barnes said.

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

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