Kentucky turned back Tennessee’s quest for what would have been the Vols first SEC tourney title since 1979, winning 77-72 on Sunday.
Tennessee (25-8) put up a valiant fight, coming from 17 down in the first half to make a game of it with the Wildcats (24-10) at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
The No. 13-ranked Vols saw their six-game win streak snapped, unable to beat Kentucky for what would have been a third time this season. It was UT’s first SEC Tournament title game appearance since a 64-61 loss to Mississippi State in Tampa in 2009.
Admiral Schofield led the Vols with 22 points and 10 rebounds despite missing a key stretch of the second half after getting hit in the face and having to go to the locker room for treatment on his nose.
“That might have been the difference,” Tennessee radio analyst Bert Bertelkamp said.
Grant Williams, the SEC Player of the Year, had 15 points and 9 rebounds for the Vols. Schofield was the only UT player named to the SEC Tournament all-tournament team.
Tennessee now awaits the NCAA Tournament selection show. The Vols have been widely projected as a No. 3 seed in what will be its first postseason appearance in four years.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the Wildcats with 29 points and 7 rebounds and was named the SEC Tournament MVP,
Kentucky, winners of the past four SEC Tournaments, appeared to have the Vols put away twice in Sunday’s game.
But down 52-43 coming out of a timeout at the 12:39 mark, the Vols went on a 15-3 run, with Lamonte Turner hitting a 3-pointer to give the Vols a 57-55 lead with 8:07 left.
“Wow, where did he shoot that baby from? Are you kidding me?” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale marveled. “He shot that one form the Cardinals baseball stadium. It’s Rocky Top time.”
Except it wasn’t, as Kentucky fought back for the win and its 31st SEC Tournament title in program history.
Kentucky held a 36-31 lead at the half after being up by as many as 17 points. A Quade Green jumper at the 4:31 mark made it 33-16.
The Vols, however, rallied to close the half on a 15-3 run, 13 of those points scored by Schofield.
Barnes said the rally was fueled by Tennessee’s defense, which he said was substandard at the start of the game.
“We missed some shots early and we let that affect us,” Barnes said during his ESPN halftime interview. “We’ve got to guard, that’s what we’ve done all year. We gave up way too many easy baskets.
“We came out soft on both ends, really.”
Barnes promised that wouldn’t be the case in the second half, and Tennessee made sure the head coach was true to his word.
The Vols opened the second half on a 10-2 run to take a 41-38 lead on a Schofield 3-pointer. It was the Vols’ first lead since being ip 2-0 on Williams’ basket that opened the game
Kentucky answered with a 14-2 run, to go up 52-43 on a Knox layup.
“I like this, they made their run,” Calipari told his team during a timeout with 15:42 left and the Wildcats up 43-41. “Hey I’m telling you, if we separate they’re gonna go away.”
Tennessee didn’t go away, but the Vols didn’t complete the comeback successfully, either.
The game was tied 62-62 with 4:20 left when Kentucky’s Kevin Knox missed a second of two free throws. Wildcats’ Wenyen Gabriel, however, snuck around Schofield’s box out to get the offensive rebound and score on a layup.
UT’s Jordan Bowden missed a 3-pointer at the other end, and seconds later, Sacha Killeya-Jones came over the top of Schofield and Kyle Alexander for a thunderous follow-dunk that made it 66-62 with 3:35 left.
Tennessee failed to draw even or reclaim the lead after that sequence of consecutive missed boxouts.
Admiral’s big run
Schofield closed the first half with an explosive burst of 13 straight points, hitting a 3-pointer to spark a 13-3 run at the 3:17 mark that cut Kentucky’s lead to 33-21. Schofield hit two more threes, a jumper and two free throws and the Wildcats’ lead was down to 36-31 at the half.
Schofield started the game 1-for-5 shooting with 3 turnovers in the first 10 minutes.
“He actually at the start of the game he wasn’t doing anything, he wasn’t guarding, he wasn’t doing anything except shooting the ball,” Barnes said at halftime. “We just told him ‘you’ve got to guard.’
“He made a couple (shots) and got it going, and we know how that works.”
Tennessee’s guards struggled in the first half, visibly bothered by Kentucky’s length on the perimeter. The Vols’ backcourt combined to shoot just 1-of-14 from the floor through the first 20 minutes.
Lamonte Turner was 0-for-5, Jordan Bowden and Jordan Bone were both 0-for-4 and James Daniel was 1-of-1 as the Wildcats led by as many as 17 before Schofield’s big run.