KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee had blown at least a 9-point lead in each of its 4 losses this season.
The Vols have not handled success against good competition all too well. Up until Saturday, that is.
Tennessee defeated Kentucky 76-65 and held around a double-digit lead for the final 8 minutes. The Vols were buoyed by the raucous sellout crowd in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Sophomore Grant Williams said after the game that closing out their opponent is a positive sign, but the team can’t get complacent with it.
“It shows a little bit of growth,” Williams said. “We’re going to keep learning from it. It’s going to be competitive in Rupp Arena. We’ve got to do it again, so we can’t take this one for granted.”
Tennessee (10-4, 1-2 SEC) faces Kentucky again on Feb. 6.
Williams finished with 18 points and 8 rebounds and was a force in the second half that Kentucky couldn’t stop. He scored 16 of his points in the second half and grabbed 5 rebounds.
The team followed Williams’ spark. The Vols outscored Kentucky 47-28 and shot 55 percent after halftime.
It was a total turn from the first half, when Kentucky exerted its will on both sides of the ball. The Wildcats’ length, in particular, made running the offense difficult for Tennessee.
Coach Rick Barnes said the staff at halftime showed the players how they didn’t follow the game plan.
“They are terrific, unbelievably coached team,” Barnes said. “They are going to make some baskets like we make some baskets. You don’t want them making the ones where we fail to execute our game plan.”
The coaching got through to the players and the team started to gel on both ends of the floor. The offense used more passes to spring players open. Tennessee assisted on 22 of 25 made field goals.
The defense also locked in and wanted to force the Wildcats into some difficult shots in the second half.
“It was just coming out and doing our job,” Williams said. “They came out and shot 55 percent in the first half, I believe. That’s something we can’t allow. Our goal is to hold teams under 39 percent for the game. The fact they came out and shot 55 percent, we had to cool them off.”
Closing with a strong second half was an important step in the young team’s maturation. The next step will be staying grounded after a top 25 victory. The Vols travel to Vanderbilt on Tuesday.