KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Negativity has dogged the Kentucky men’s basketball program since its disappointing loss to South Carolina on Tuesday.
Heading into Saturday's 63-56 win over No. 5 Tennessee, Wildcats coach John Calipari did his best to insulate his players while absorbing as many bullets as possible himself.
“I haven’t lost faith in any of these guys,” he said. “I’ve got a good team. (Friday night), I collected all the (players’ cell) phones and iPads and everything else.”
Antonio Reeves scored 18 points and Oscar Tshiebwe had 15 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Wildcats (11-6, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) over the Volunteers. The victory ended a 25-game home win streak for Tennessee (14-3, 4-1) that dated to the end of the 2020-21 season.
Kentucky led, 58-50, with 3:28 left in the game. Two free throws by Santiago Vescovi and two buckets by Uros Plavsic closed the gap to 2 with less than a minute to play.
A Wildcat turnover gave Tennessee a shot to tie or take the lead, but Zakai Zeigler and Plavsic missed down low.
“Both coaches made it a slugfest,” said Calipari. “Nobody backed down.”
The Wildcats showed a physical presence and dominated the Volunteers on the boards, 43-23. Tennessee came into the game leading the SEC in rebounding margin (+9.94).
“Our frontline's gotta do a better job rebounding,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes. “On the defensive end, we have to get everyone involved.”
Tennessee big man Plavsic, who scored 19 points, was the only Volunteer to match Kentucky’s physicality.
Calipari said the strategy was to focus on the Volunteers’ perimeter play, while letting Plavsic have his way.
“They can beat us with threes,” said Calipari. “They won’t beat us with twos.”
CJ Fredrick scored 8 in a row and had 10 of his 13 points in the first half as Kentucky led at the break, 33-26.
Vescovi, who tweaked his shooting (left) shoulder in a collision early in the game, had 7 in the first half for Tennessee. He finished with 13 points.
“We had some uncontested looks at the rim,” Barnes said. “Point-blank layups — you’ve gotta make them.”