Kentucky’s storied past. Its suspenseful present. And what appears to be a bright future.
The present: UK had its way with No. 11 Tennessee, dominating its border state rival en route to a 66-54 victory.
The win gave the Wildcats (18-9, 9-5 SEC) a regular-season sweep of the Volunteers — both featuring a Tennessee team ranked among the top 10 in the Associated Press poll at the time of the games. It also was Kentucky’s second Quad 1 win — the contests that are the most crucial factor in determining a team’s NCAA worthiness — in four days, following Wednesday’s 71-68 victory over Mississippi State in Starkville, Mississippi.
Saturday was a performance befitting the Wildcats’ teams from 1996 through 1998, honored during halftime. Those squads advanced to three straight Final Fours, appeared in a trio of national championship games and won titles in the first and last seasons of that illustrious run. Saturday’s convincing victory is also representative of what Kentucky (18-9, 9-5 SEC) hopes is in store next season, when the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class comes to town. One of those signees, Justin Edwards of Philadelphia, was in attendance along with more than 20,000 members of the Wildcat faithful at Rupp Arena.
During a break in the action in the first half, Edwards walked to midcourt, with the crowd welcoming the future Wildcat with a standing ovation.
The recognition of the three teams from UK’s halcyon days in the 1990s, along with Edwards’ appearance, came amid the 2022-23 squad’s most impressive win of the season. The Wildcats are still trying to play themselves off the NCAA Tournament bubble and into a more comfortable position come Selection Sunday.
And UK is now in a far better place than it was just seven days ago.
On Feb. 11, Kentucky lost on the road to Georgia, a team with a sub-100 NET ranking. It marked the Wildcats’ second setback of that variety this season. (Hapless South Carolina, which beat UK at home, is the other.) That loss to the Bulldogs also meant the Wildcats had twice as many questionable losses as Quad 1 victories. But after going 2-0 this week, UK now has three Quad 1 triumphs — two coming against the Vols — on the season.
The latest came with the Wildcats fielding a short-handed roster for the third straight outing, against a less-than-full-strength Tennessee (20-7, 9-5) squad. Kentucky was without senior guards CJ Fredrick (ribs) and Sahvir Wheeler (ankle); the Volunteers countered with Josiah-Jordan James (ankle) and Julian Phillips (hip flexor) glued to the bench.
Early on, the game looked like it might turn into a battle of attrition: Both teams missed six of their first seven shots; they had combined for six points (UK 4, UT 2) at the first media timeout, which came with 15:51 remaining in the half.
As the half wore on, however, the Wildcats began to flex their muscles.
When time ran out in the opening half, Kentucky held a 39-19 lead.
Tennessee battled back in the second half, though, outscoring the hosts 35-27 in the final 20 minutes. The Volunteers drew as close as eight points two times in the final eight minutes. But it was too big a hole to dig out of against a Kentucky team that, given the quality of the foe — UT upended top-ranked Alabama at Thompson-Boling Arena on Wednesday — played its best game of the season.
A pair of freshmen led the way.
Cason Wallace, who struggled mightily against Mississippi State (1 of 13 from the field, though he did have 11 assists), bounced back to score 16 points Saturday. He also grabbed six rebounds and dished out a game-high six assists. Chris Livingston had 12 points, knocking down four of the five shots he attempted while also pulling down 10 rebounds, the most among all players in Saturday’s game, for the first double-double of his college career.
Senior forward Oscar Tshiebwe had 16 points, matching Wallace for the team high. Fellow senior forward Jacob Toppin (11) also finished in double-figures.
Guard Santiago Vescovi poured in 17 points for Tennessee to lead all scorers Saturday.
Kentucky hits the road for its next game, heading to Gainesville, Florida, on Wednesday to face Florida. Kentucky won the first matchup between the two this season, earning a 72-67 victory in Lexington on Feb. 4.
Source: USA Today