Tennessee dropped its first home game to Kentucky in the Rick Barnes era Saturday afternoon as the Vols couldn’t find the second half stops, falling 77-64 to the Wildcats.
Kentucky led wire-to-wire behind balanced scoring and a seven-minute stretch of dominant offense to hold off a hot Santiago Vescovi and the Big Orange.
Here are three takeaways.
Kentucky entered Saturday’s matchup with four players averaging double figures. The Wildcats were even more balanced on Saturday with five players scoring double digits and three scoring 15 or more points.
“They’re a very hard team to guard, they really are,” Barnes said. “They know what they’re looking for and they do a good job of trying to spread it around… . I think they’re playing really well too.”
With Josiah-Jordan James out, Tennessee’s already thin roster became even thinner forcing some of Tennessee’s lesser defenders to guard Kentucky’s stars.
Credit Kentucky, the Wildcats were patient on offense making Tennessee play good defense for 30 seconds. Kentucky didn’t force 3-pointers and they were rewarded. The Wildcats took just 10 3-pointers and knocked down five of them.
Johnny Juzang was the breakout star of the afternoon for Kentucky hitting all three of his triples while scoring a career high 13 points.
Immanuel Quickley led the way for the Wildcat’s offense scoring 18 points while shooting 2 of 3 from beyond the arc and 6 of 7 at the free throw line.
There were serious concerns entering Saturday’s matchup that Santiago Vescovi wouldn’t be able to handle Ashton Hagans and Kentucky’s elite on ball defense. Those concerns looked serious after Vescovi turned it over on the Vols’ first possession, but the Uruguayan native locked in and turned in a solid performance.
“I’m feeling very comfortable right now,” Vescovi said. “I think I’m starting to understand what coach wants from me. I also think the coach really understands what my game is. We run some on-ball screens for me so then I can make a play from that.”
Vescovi scored a team high 18 points on 5 of 13 shooting, and he helped fuel Tennessee’s second half run that cut the Wildcat’s lead to four with just over nine minutes left.
Vescovi would hit three second half triples including two that kept the Vols in it in the second half while Kentucky threatened to pull away.
Vescovi ended the game with only two assists, his teammates didn’t help him by failing to convert on multiple good looks but turned it over just three times in over 38 minutes. For someone that wasn’t on Tennessee’s campus six weeks ago that’s a pretty impressive performance.
“Santiago is a phenomenal story,” Barnes said. “What that kid has done is amazing. It really is. … What he is doing is really phenomenal. He’s not able to be in the type of shape you’d expect a guy to be not going through spring, summer or fall.”
John Calipari wanted a timeout after Vescovi knocked down an open 3-pointer to cut the Wildcats lead to four. Tennessee had gotten a pair of offensive rebounds on the possession and Thompson-Boling Arena could smell another upset over a ranked Kentucky squad.
However, Kentucky answered the bell, especially the Wildcat’s offense who scored on their next eight possessions to keep Tennessee at an arms distance.
Included in the stretch was back-to-back 3-point possessions. First, Nick Richards hit a free throw before missing the next, but Juzang grabbed the offensive rebound and finished. Yves Pons would answer with a basket of his own to cut the lead to five, but Richards answered again earning three points the old-fashioned way and also giving John Fulkerson his fourth foul.
Tennessee’s offense played well to keep the Vols in it down the stretch. Tennessee finally got a stop with 2:40 left and Jordan Bowden had a wide open 3-pointer that would have cut Kentucky’s lead to two, but it didn’t go.
Nick Richards would earn two at the free throw line before a Yves Pons 3-pointer didn’t go, and Immanuel Quickley would provide the dagger on the other end, hitting his second triple of the night.
“It’s tough,” Bowden said. “We’re playing as good of defense as we can and they made tough shot, it kind of sucks. We did our best. We just try to limit them to tough shots. It’s all we can do.”
Tennessee struggled to stop Kentucky’s quick guards from getting to the basket as the Vols’ starting backcourt played 38 minutes each. Including Vescovi, who was playing with congestion in his chest and said he struggled to breathe at times in the second half.
“I thought both teams had guys get tired,” Barnes said. “They have more guys that can drive the ball than we do. They do a good job of attacking you.”
Tennessee returns to action Tuesday night when Arkansas travels to Knoxville to face the Big Orange. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on SEC Network.