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Lexington, KY 2-18-23

Kentucky Throttles Tennessee 66-54 in Pivotal Home Victory

Kentucky (18-9, 9-5 SEC) defeated Tennessee (20-7, 9-5 SEC) in a key home matchup in Lexington on Saturday afternoon, 66-54. The ‘Cats got off to a fast start offensively in front of a late arriving brunch crowd at Rupp Arena, opening the game on a 10-2 run. The ‘Cats never trailed the Volunteers after that quick start to open the game. An 8-point ‘Cats lead with about 7-minutes to play was the closest Tennessee got after falling into their early hole. The Rupp Arena faithful were buzzing throughout the game, hanging onto every foul call (… 44 fouls in the game), three-pointer (Kentucky had just 8 3PT attempts in the game), and defensive stop all afternoon. The fun didn’t stop for the ‘Cats fans at the halftime, however, even with a 39-19 lead. The University of Kentucky Men’s Basketball program honored the 1996, 1997, and 1998 teams at the half. It was an all-around classic day of Kentucky basketball for ‘Cats fans across the state. Kentucky entered the game coming off an ever-important road victory over Mississippi State on Wednesday night, winning that game by a score of 71-68. That win propelled the ‘Cats into the projected NCAA tournament field as one of the last four teams in, according to Joe Lunardi. Freshman Chris Livingston finally had a breakthrough performance in the second half of Wednesday’s game, collecting game totals of 13-points, 5-rebounds, and 3-assists against the Bulldogs, while converting 6-6 on free-throws in the game. Kentucky entered the game ranked No. 39 in the latest NET rankings, while doubling their Quad I wins with their latest win over Mississippi from 1 to 2 on the season (3-7 in Quad I games after Tennessee win). Oscar Tshiebwe (15.8 PPG, 13.3 RPG), Antonio Reeves (13.2 PPG, 42% 3PT), Jacob Toppin (11.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG), and Cason Wallace (11.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 4.0 APG) have led the ‘Cats on offense during the stretch run this season, with the aforementioned Chris Livingston (11.8 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 40% 3PT in last 4 games) coming on as of late. The ‘Cats were without CJ Frederick (Ribs) and Sahvir Wheeler (Ankle) for Saturday’s game. For Tennessee, they entered Saturday’s matchup ranked No. 10 in the nation in the latest AP Poll, while also checking in ranked No. 3 in the NET rankings (6-3 in Quad I after loss to Kentucky). The Volunteers defeated the newly minted No. 1 Alabama on Wednesday night in Knoxville by a score of 68-59, handing the Crimson Tide their first conference loss of the season. The Tennessee defense, one of the strongest in the country, held Alabama and their high-powered offense to just those 59-points in the game, over 20-points under their season average of 82.5 PPG. Santiago Vescovi (12.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.7 APG), Zakai Zeigler (10.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 5.5 APG) and Olivier Nkamhoua (10.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.9 APG) have led the Volunteers offense this season. Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips were out for Saturday’s matchup versus the ‘Cats. Tennessee was favored in the game with a spread of (-1.5) on the road. Some keys to the game for the ‘Cats before the game were a Wallace bounce back after back-to-back poor performances shooting (3-21 FG, 0-12 3PT in last 2 games), the matchup between Tshiebwe and Plavsic (Plavsic scored 19-points in the first matchup versus Kentucky in Knoxville), three-point shooting, Livingston continued breakout, and bench play in Thiero/Ware/Collins.

The starting lineup for the ‘Cats featured Wallace, Reeves, Livingston, Toppin, and Tshiebwe.

Game Recap:

Both teams started slow from the field but the ‘Cats scored first off a transition corner three from Reeves. Tennessee’s first score came off a post move that brought the score to 4-2 Kentucky. With both teams starting the game shooting 14% from the floor, the score remained at 4-2 ‘Cats at the first media timeout. Wallace converted a nifty floater to put the ‘Cats in front 6-2. Zeigler picked up his second foul for Tennessee with 14:30-minutes remaining in the first half. After a Wallace mid-range jumper, Tennessee scored their first points in over a 5-minute stretch that brought the score to 10-4 Kentucky with 12-minutes to play. Livingston flew to the bucket to score a putback off a missed Toppin floater to push the ‘Cats in front 12-6 at the under 12-minute media timeout. Livingston nailed a three after Reeves picked up his second foul with 9-minutes to play to push the ‘Cats in front 15-8 with 8:26-minutes left in the half. Back-to-back mid-range jumpers from Tshiebwe and Wallace put the ‘Cats in front 19-10 with 6:54-minutes remaining in the half. The Volunteers shot 27% from the field through the first 14-minutes of action (0-6 from 3PT). Wallace found Tshiebwe off a pick-and-roll for a slam and an and-one opportunity that stretched the ‘Cats lead to 22-10 after the made free-throw. Toppin responded to a Volunteers layup with a three. A Wallace post move and score put the ‘Cats on a 12-2 run that lengthened their lead to 27-12. Tennessee ended the Kentucky run with a three to narrow the score to 27-15 with 3:23-minutes to play in the half. The ‘Cats extended their lead to 16 by a score of 31-15 after two Tshiebwe free-throws and a Wallace dunk. Tshiebwe hit two more free-throws to put the ‘Cats in front 35-19 with 48-seconds remaining in the half. A barrage of free-throws propelled the ‘Cats to a late 8-0 run in the half that pushed their lead to 39-19 at halftime. The ‘Cats defense held Tennessee to just 26% shooting from the field and 8% (1-13) from 3PT. Kentucky got to the free-throw line early and often in the half, shooting 12-13 (92%) from the line. The ‘Cats crashed the boards to outrebound the Volunteers 22-14 in the half. The ‘Cats did not trail at any point in the first half. Reeves played just 11-minutes in the first half with 2 fouls. Wallace bounced back after two subpar offensive shooting performances with 12 first half points to lead the ‘Cats and all game scorers. Tshiebwe and Livingston each contributed 9-points in the half as well.

The second half scoring began with a Tennessee floater that brought the score to 39-21 Kentucky. Tennessee started the half hot on a 7-0 run that narrowed the Kentucky lead to 13 at 39-26 with 18:37 to play. Livingston scored the first Kentucky points of the half off a putback from a Toppin miss. A Toppin free-throw extended the ‘Cats lead back to 16, 42-26. After a Zeigler three, Wallace drove to the paint and converted an and-one opportunity that brought the score to 45-29 with 17:02 remaining. The officials blew their whistles often to begin the half, calling 9 total fouls in the first 4-minutes of second half action. The score saw Kentucky take a 45-31 lead at the first media timeout. Zeigler picked up his 3rd and 4th fouls on back-to-back Kentucky possessions with 15:13-minutes remaining in the half. Wallace found Tshiebwe for another pick-and-roll slam to put the ‘Cats in front 47-34. Toppin flew in for a slam for the ‘Cats in response to a Vescovi three, who hit three treys in the second half to this point. Vescovi continued to cause issues for the ‘Cats on the offensive end, scoring 15-points through the first 8-minutes of the second half, narrowing the ‘Cats lead to 51-41 with 11:40 to play. Tshiebwe picked up his 4th foul with 10:39 left to play in the game. Collins entered for Tshiebwe with the ‘Cats leading 53-41. Collins proceeded to find Toppin for a cutting dunk to push the ‘Cats to a 55-41 lead. The free-throw shooting affair began with 9:30-minutes to play as Livingston missed the front end of a one-and-one. Tennessee then responded to miss their front end of a one-and-one as well. A Volunteer three narrowed the ‘Cats lead to 9 at 55-46. The ‘Cats took a 57-48 lead into the under 8-minute media timeout. Wallace gained possession of a loose ball by diving on the floor and creating an outlet in transition that resulted in two Livingston free-throws. Kentucky led 60-50 with 5-minutes to play. A Reeves jumper pushed the lead to 62-50 Kentucky. A Vescovi jumper brought Tennessee back within 10 at 62-52 with 2:50-minutes remaining in the game. Kentucky led 63-54 with 52-seconds to play after a Tennessee transition turnover. Kentucky did not make a field goal attempt in the last 4:37-minutes of action and did not successfully convert all of their free-throw opportunities as they hit just 6 of 14 free-throws in the last 7-minutes of action, finishing the second half shooting an abysmal 11-22 (50%) from the charity stripe. The ‘Cats held their lead and did not trail Tennessee at any point in the game as they went on to a 66-54 victory in an important resume building game in Lexington, sweeping the season series with the Volunteers.

The lockdown Kentucky defense held Tennessee to just 37% shooting in the game and 22% (6-27) from 3PT. Kentucky’s offense converted at a 44% clip from the field and 38% from beyond the arc, shooting 3-8 from three-point range. Kentucky outrebounded Tennessee by a count of 40-32 in the game. Wallace posted a well-rounded line of 16-points, 6-rebounds, and 6-assists. Tshiebwe joined Wallace with 16-points and added 7-rebounds and 3-steals in the game. Livingston continued his breakout with 12-points and led the ‘Cats with 10-rebounds for his first career double-double. Toppin also mixed in 11-points and 5-rebounds in the game. Livingston led all ‘Cats with a plus/minus total of +16 in 36-minutes of action. The ‘Cats have put themselves in a solid position to get off the bubble as they head down the home stretch of the season with a big Quad I win at home Saturday. “Just win” is what a lot of ‘Cats fans said after back-to-back losses to Arkansas and Georgia just a little over a week ago, and win is just what the ‘Cats have done this week, easing some of the concern of fans across the state.

The ‘Cats (18-9, 9-5 SEC) will hit the road for their mid-week matchup versus the Florida Gators (14-13, 7-7 SEC) in Gainesville this Wednesday, February 22. The Gators leading offensive contributor, Colin Castleton, injured his hand versus Ole Miss last week and is out for the game, and likely the season. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN.

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