Monday, January 20, 2014

Kentucky 74 - 66 Tennessee (No. 2,124)

I was very concerned about this game because I thought UT would be a very difficult match-up for the Cats.  UK's best play this year has been to throw the ball at the basket and chase the offensive rebounds -- but I didn't think they would get too many offensive rebounds against the Vols.  On the other hand, UK's defense doesn't generate turnovers -- they basically wait for the other team to miss and then try to grab the rebound, and I was afraid UT would grab a lot of those rebounds.  The last time I saw UK get manhandled on the glass, they were beaten by Baylor, and I was afraid that would happen again.

For awhile, my fears were very much justified.  Tennessee dominated Kentucky on the boards.  The Vols got 20 offensive rebounds and 39 total rebounds, while UK got only 7 offensive rebounds and only 24 rebounds in all.  At the beginning of the game, no one for the Cats could do anything to stop UT forward Jarnell Stokes, who ended up with 20 points and 15 rebounds.  And at the other end of the floor, UK's front line was struggling against UT's big guys.  (For the game, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, and Dakari Johnson combined for only 8 points and 10 rebounds -- much less than Stokes got by himself.)

So the Vols shot out to an immediate lead, and they were up 22-13 with 10:19 left in the first half.  I was very depressed.  But at this point, Andrew Harrison -- who had only made 13 three-pointers all year -- hit a three to make the score 22-16.  And then Kentucky did something on defense to slow down UT.  I'm not sure exactly what it was -- part of it seemed to involve using Johnson on Stokes instead of Cauley-Stein, and part of it seemed to be rebounding with much more fervor -- but Tennessee's offense suddenly stopped working.  After scoring 22 points in the first 10 minutes of action, the Vols scored only 24 points in the next 20 minutes of play.  By then, UK was up 51-46, because the Cats had also figured out how to score against Tennessee's defense.

In the first half, the Cats used Julius Randle, who had 16 points at halftime.  In the second half, after the Vols started crowding Randle more aggressively, the Cats went to Andrew Harrison.  In 16 previous games, the UK point guard had never scored more than 18 points.  But that 18-point game had been against Louisville, and Andrew Harrison stepped up again in another big game.  He went for 26 points, going 7-13 from the field and 10-10 from the line.  Sixteen of those points came in the second half.  Meanwhile, his brother Aaron had 11 of his 14 points in the second half, and together the Harrisons sparked UK to a very important win.

In a sense, UT was unlucky.  The Vols dominated UK on the glass, and had 22 two-point shots to only 15 for Kentucky.  That should usually get you the victory.  But UT made only 2 of 13 three-pointers and went 16-23 from the free-throw stripe.  Meanwhile, the Cats were uncharacteristically hot -- they went 7-16 from three-point range and a remarkable 23-24 from the line.  Ironically, the weakness of UK's play on the inside kept guys like Cauley-Stein and Johnson from getting to the stripe.  Most of UK's free throws were shot instead by Randle (who makes 72 percent of his free throws), Andrew Harrison (73.6 percent), and Aaron Harrison (77.4 percent).  But even with those guys, UK was fortunate to miss only one of 24 free throws.

But UK was due for some luck.  As we've pointed out before, the Cats have been unlucky most of the year -- losing all four of their closest games.  Furthermore, check out the number of total fouls called on both teams in UK's four SEC games this year.  Which of these games is not like the others?

Mississippi St:  41 fouls called
Vanderbilt:  28 fouls called
Arkansas:  60 fouls called
Tennessee:  37 fouls called

Just more evidence of the absurd officiating that the Cats faced down in Fayetteville.

So it was a nice win for the Cats -- Tennessee is a very good team, they had a solid game plan, and they played very hard.  But it wasn't a real breakthrough.  Pomeroy still has the Cats ranked number 16 in the country -- and they are ranked 50th in defensive efficiency.  If the Cats are seriously going to compete for the National Championship, those numbers will likely have to improve.