In a sequel that lived up to the billing, the Tennessee Volunteers defeated the University of Kentucky Wildcats in the SEC Tournament Semifinals by a score of 82-78. After two lopsided regular season meetings, with each team dominating on their home floor, the final part of the trilogy did not disappoint. Both teams started off hot and the fans inside Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, a record 20,933) witnessed one of the best SEC Tournament games in history, but a showcase of why the Vols and the Cats could make it all the way to Minneapolis and the 2019 Final Four.
Tennessee and Kentucky traded punches all afternoon, reminiscent of a great heavyweight fight. The crowd was electric with the Big Blue Nation’s “Go Big Blue” chants fighting against UT’s “Rocky Top.” With about 3 minutes left in the game, Kentucky was up 8 points and it looked as if the Wildcats were on their way to a 5th consecutive SEC Tournament title. The Volunteers, however, had other plans. After the game, UK head coach John Calipari praised the Vols and head man Rick Barnes and the way Tennessee closed out the Cats in a way that gives UK a lot to talk about with the NCAA tournament upcoming. Calipari stated that despite UK’s youth, the Cats had been very good at closing out games and just didn’t do it on Saturday.
PJ Washington was plagued with foul trouble and only played 6 first half minutes. The talented sophomore did finish with 16 points, to lead the Cats, and 5 rebounds. Reid Travis started the game and showed how valuable he is to this team’s success. Kentucky’s lead evaporated after he fouled out. Despite notching 11 points and 6 rebounds, so much of Travis’ work doesn’t show up in the boxscore and when Tennessee made it’s closing run, the Cats couldn’t regroup to hold the Vols off. After a disappointing game against Alabama in the quaterfinals, Keldon Johnson scored 15 points and grabbed a team-leading 6 rebounds. Ashton Hagans had a double-double with 10 points and 12 assists.
Rick Barnes’ squad was simply tougher down the stretch. The Volunteers were lead by their SEC Player of the Year candidate Grant Williams (20 points, 7 rebounds) and Admiral Schofield (21 points, 5 assists). The resilient Tennessee squad took the Wildcats’ best punches, Washington was a player possessed in the second half scoring 14 points, and stayed just close enough to give themselves a chance at the end to close out the Cats. Kentucky left the door open and the Vols just knocked it off its hinges and took the rubber match.
With Selection Sunday upcoming, there’s no time for Calipari and his team to be too down on themselves. And, thankfully, the Cats weren’t after the loss. Washington said that he told the team that they’ve got one more tournament to get ready for and it’s time to put some work in. Coach Cal didn’t opine too much about where or how Kentucky should be seeded. Even if the Cats are down to the two-seed line, the bottom line is there’s six games separating them from title number 9. They have the talent to compete with any team in the country. If there’s a lesson to be learned from the UT loss, it’s that if you leave the door open, a good team will make you pay. We’ll see how well they’ve learned it later this week.