Saturday, March 9, 2024

Tennessee 81 - 85 Kentucky (Win No. 2,398)

The first season in which I rooted for Kentucky was the 1974-75 season, and the first time I remember watching Kentucky play Tennessee in Knoxville was February 15, 1975.  Kentucky was number 4 in the country, and Tennessee was unranked, but the Vols won 103 to 98.  For me, that was the start of a pattern that has continued for much of my life -- but for Kentucky fans, games in Knoxville have always been a struggle.  Going into today, I could remember 48 UK trips to Knoxville, and the Cats were 20-28 in those games.

For years, I wondered about why Kentucky had such a hard time in Knoxville.  And I came to believe that playing Tennessee in Knoxville is the basketball equivalent of the old compulsory exercises they used to make the figure skaters do.  Historically, Kentucky likes to play a romantic style of basketball -- the Cats like to run and jump and make beautiful plays.  But when you to Knoxville, you have to be precise.  You can't make turnovers.  You have to battle for every rebound.  Every awkward step will be a travel.  Every awkward bump will be a foul.  You have to take the game one possession at a time, and you have to be very patient.  Guys will get into foul trouble.  UK will probably get called for a technical.  And if it's close, the game will take a long time, with lots of video reviews.

A lot of Kentucky teams get impatient and fall apart.  On January 21, 1992, I saw the Unforgettables lose 107 to 85 in a game where UT shot FIFTY-NINE free throws and five Kentucky players fouled out.  On February 27, 2010, I saw John Wall's team go 2 of 22 from three-point range and lose 74 to 63 -- their worst performance of the year.  Even when you don't fall apart, it can be tough:  the Cats have lost a lot of close games in Knoxville.

And remember, for most of my life Tennessee's teams weren't very good.  These days, the Vols are really good -- SEC Regular Season Champions this year, Number 4 in the AP poll, on their way to a Number-1 Seed in the NCAA's.  They had taken their usual crowd of bruisers and added Dalton Knecht, who was (in my opinion), the player of the year in the SEC.  So today, in the last game of the year, you know they were going to be very tough.

On the other hand, this year's iteration of the Wildcats has shown a tendency to match the level of its competition.  Their two best games of the year were their win over North Carolina and their win at Auburn.  In recent weeks, their offense has been really sharp.  Meanwhile, UT had just beaten Auburn, Alabama, and South Carolina.  So you had to figure we would be in for a good game today.

And so it proved.  From the beginning, the Cats made clear that they were willing to play a possession-by-possession game.  Dillingham got two quick fouls and couldn't do much.  Wagner got two fouls.  No one was all that hot from the outside.  But at halftime, the Cats were still ahead 33 to 29.  I thought Kentucky would do better on offense once Dillingham got to play some more.  On the other hand, I figured UT would start using Knecht (who already had 19 points) even more aggressively.

Both of these speculations proved to be true.  With UK up 38-34 and 17 minutes to go, Dillingham started a rally.  In only 2 1/2 minutes, the Cats went on a 13-7 run and led 51-41.  But then Dillingham was called for his third foul and had to leave the proceedings.  A few minutes later, the Cats led 54-46 when Cal got the expected technical foul.  But UT missed the technical, Knecht missed a three-pointer, and then Zakai Zeigler (the Tennessee point guard who normally kills UK) missed another three-pointer.  By this point, Dillingham was back in the game, and he set up Reed Sheppard for a three-pointer to put UK up 57-46.  Then UT missed two more three-pointers, and Sheppard hit Justin Edwards for a three-pointer that put the Cats up 60-46 with 11:53 left.  Timeout Tennessee.

Things went back and forth for awhile, and UK led 68-54 after a three-pointer from Dillingham.  Then UT got an old-fashioned three-point play, a three-pointer from Knecht, and a three-pointer from Ziegler.  That made the score 68-63 with 7:37 left.  Timeout Kentucky.

Now consider the situation.  Tennessee is definitely one of the best teams in the country, and probably worthy of a number-one seed nationally.  Knecht was on fire -- he would eventually score 40 points for the game.  Ziegler was locked in (he would finish with 17 points and 9 assists).  The crowd was going nuts.  And the Cats have had difficulty defending leads.

What followed next was the best five minutes of basketball Kentucky has played since 2017.  It started like this:

Dillingham made two FT's (70-63)
Knecht made a layup (70-65)
Reeves made a layup (72-65)
Knecht made a jumper (72-67)
Dillingham missed, but Knecht's layup was blocked by Zvonimir Ivisic, and Sheppard's rebound led to a layup for Reeves (74-67)
Knecht missed a three-pointer, and Dillingham's rebound turned into a three-pointer from Sheppard

Now the Cats led 77 to 67 with 4:08 left, and you knew the Cats would start running clock on every possession.

3:47 left:  Zeigler layup (77-69)
3:21 left:  Dillingham missed a layup
3:12 left:  Josiah-Jordan James took a three-pointer, which missed.  I thought that was a mistake, because UT should have stuck with Zeigler and Knecht.  And the Cats really made them pay:  Dillingham got the rebound and with
2:43 left:  Sheppard made another three-pointer, to put the Cats up 80 to 69
2:22 left:  Knecht made a jumper (80-71).  Vols called time.

Now the Cats were really trying to run clock and prevent three-pointers.  With only 56 seconds left, D.J. Wagner made two free throws and the Cats were up 84 to 73.  Even I started to feel comfortable at that point.

But I was wrong.  In the semi-finals of the 2019 SEC Tournament, Kentucky outplayed Tennessee for 37 minutes.  With 2:58 left in the game, UK led 72 to 64.  And in the last 2:58 seconds, Tennessee scored EIGHTEEN points, beating UK 82 to 78.  It was horrible to watch.  And now Tennessee tried to do it again.

52 seconds left:  Zeigler hit a three-point shot (84-76).  Tennessee timeout.

47 seconds left:  The Cats inbounded to Sheppard, who fell down and threw the ball to Zeigler.  He laid in the ball and a ludicrous foul was called on Wagner.  That was all for him -- he fouled out after playing only 13 minutes.  Zeigler's free throw was good, and the score was 84 to 79.

Timeout Kentucky.  But whatever Cal said here did not help very much, because look what happened next:

31 seconds left:  Without Wagner now out of the game, Dillingham turned the ball over.  Ziegler's three pointer was blocked by Sheppard, but James got the ball and was fouled by Dillingham.  That was Dillingham's fourth foul.  He made both free throws, and now it was 84 to 81.

Kentucky tried to inbound the ball again.  This time they got it inbounds, but neither Reeves, Sheppard, nor Dillingham could get the ball over the timeline.  After 10 seconds, that was another turnover.  Tennessee ball.  21 seconds left, and Thompson-Boling Arena in a frenzy.

Of course, we all knew Tennessee would try to get the ball to Knecht.  The Vols had been running a set where the whole team would assemble in the corner of the floor on the left side of the floor.  They would set a bunch of screens trying to stop Edwards (the guy supposed to be guarding Knecht) from getting to him.  Knecht would run along the baseline and turn up on the right side of the floor, usually with the ball.  And after watching teams like Florida and Mississippi State make so many late three-pointers against UK, it seemed very likely we would be going to overtime.

But Knecht fell down trying to get through the scrum, and this messed up the timing of the play.  Ziegler threw the ball to James, who shot a three-pointer with 17 seconds left.  (Kentucky always lets you shoot a three to tie).  This shot missed.  Four people went for the rebound, but Ugonna Onyenso (who had single-handedly battled the UT front line for 29 minutes) had the position, and a Tennessee player (trying to prevent the rebound) swatted the ball out of bounds.  10.1 seconds left.  (Maybe luck does make a difference in close games.)

Of course, we had to sit through a video replay.  It wasn't that close, and they gave the ball to UK.  With Wagner on the bench, Sheppard inbounded the ball to my hero, Rob Dillingham, and it was clear that Dillingham was not giving it back.  Dillingham was finally fouled with 5.1 seconds left.  Two shots.  He went to the line and shot the first free throw, which bounced around and rolled out.

Timeout Calipari.  He hates calling timeouts down the stretch, and now he'd called two in the last minute of the game.  On the other hand, UT had outscored UK 8-0 in the last minute, and I liked the idea that we were trying to get organized.  I was hoping that he was telling them that if Dillingham missed the free throw, and Tennessee got the rebound, they had to foul to prevent a three-pointer.  But I have to admit feeling really calm about the whole thing.  Rob Dillingham is my hero, and I had the confidence of a nine-year-old that he would make this free throw.

And so, after almost two and a half hours of frenzy, Rob Dillingham went to the free throw line in the last regular season game he will ever play for the University of Kentucky, and he took the Wildcats' last shot.  It was good.  Zeigler had time to miss one final three-pointer, Sheppard grabbed the last rebound of the season, and the Cats had an enormous victory:  85 to 81.

I'm sure the Tennessee fans were disappointed -- I would be if I were in their position.  But they can console themselves with the fact that Knecht's ceiling is almost limitless.  In a game where they needed every point he could give them, he put up 40.  In fact, Tennessee scored 52 points in the second half, which would normally be more than enough to win any game.  They were beaten by a spectacular shooting performance from the Cats, who went 15-29 from three-point range, and 16-18 from the line.  Wagner was 0-4 from three-point range, and Tre Mitchell and Aaron Bradshaw each went 0-1.  If you take away those six misses, the rest of Kentucky's team went 15-23 from behind the arc:  65.2 percent.  Antonio Reeves was 3-5, Edwards was 4-7, and Sheppard -- Reed Sheppard, the pride of Laurel County -- went 7 of 10.

In fact, Sheppard played like something out of your childhood dreams.  Wagner fouled out in only 13 minutes, and Dillingham's foul trouble limited him to 17 minutes.  So Sheppard and Reeves had to carry the load.  Reeves was great:  27 points and 7 rebounds in 37 minutes.  But Sheppard was even better:  27 points in 33 minutes, along with 6 rebounds and 5 assists.  In a game with so many heroes, Ken Pom named Sheppard as the MVP, even over Knecht.  I am a proud populist, but watching Reed Sheppard I can see why so many people like aristocrats.

So the Cats, who were 5-4 in SEC play after getting stomped by the Vols at Rupp Arena, finish the year 13-5 in the SEC, and 23-8 overall.  They went 6-5 in Ken Pom's "A" games, 2-2 in "B" games, and 15-1 in all other games (UNC Wilmington).  But they won their last four "A" games (at Auburn, Alabama, at Mississippi State, and at Tennessee).  They have a five-game winning streak.  They are 22-5 in games where D.J. Wagner played, and they have beaten four teams ranked in Ken Pom's top 10:  Auburn, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama.  They are the only team to beat Auburn at Auburn.  Today, they ended Tennessee's streak of 12 consecutive home wins against teams ranked in the AP Poll.  And they have given young Kentuckians some new heroes to emulate at recess.  You can't ask for much more than that.


  1. With the win, Kentucky takes the number 2 seed in the SEC Tournament. They will play the winner of Texas A & M and Ole Miss on Friday night.

  2. The top of the SEC looks like this (with numbered seeds):

    1. Tennessee: 14-4
    2. Kentucky: 13-5
    3. Alabama: 13-5
    4. Auburn: 13-5
    5. S. Carolina: 13-5

  3. By the way, here's how great UK was in 2012. This year, Kentucky had one of the best offenses it has ever had. In SEC play, they averaged 118.3 points per 100 possessions. In every season going back to 1999, only three Kentucky teams have averaged at least 115 points per 100 possessions in SEC play:

    In 2015, the Cats averaged 115.2 points per 100 possessions in SEC play.
    In 2016, the Cats averaged 116.9 points per 100 possessions in SEC play.

    So this year's team beat both of those. But in 2012, Kentucky averaged 120.2 points per 100 possessions in SEC play. In other words, that team's offense was even better than this year's team. And that's before we even start talking about their defense.

  4. For the record, the 2012 Cats allowed only 93.8 points per 100 possessions in SEC play. This year, EVERY SEC team allowed at least 98.7 points per 100 possessions. Kentucky allowed 109.8 points per 100 possessions.

  5. That 2012 team was on a different level.

  6. Now if you subtract this year's team's defensive efficiency number from its offensive efficiency number (counting only SEC games), you get 8.5. Since 1999, the Cats have had three other teams with very similar ratings. And those three teams show us that almost anything could happen next.

  7. In 2000, the difference between UK's SEC offensive efficiency and its defensive efficiency was 8.4. That team lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

  8. In 2020, the difference was also 8.4. That team went 15-3, but the NCAA Tournament was cancelled.

  9. And in 2014, the difference was 8.3. That team went 12-6 in the regular season, but ended up playing for National Championship.

  10. Here's a ranking of all the Cal teams based on the difference between their offensive and defensive efficiencies in SEC play:

    2012: 26.9 (16-0, National Champs)
    2015: 26.0 (18-0, lost in Final Four)
    2016: 17.0 (13-5, lost in Second Round)
    2019: 15.8 (15-3, lost in Elite Eight)
    2017: 15.5 (16-2, lost in Elite Eight)
    2010: 13.9 (14-2, lost in Elite Eight)
    2022: 11.9 (14-4, lost in First Round)
    2011: 11.5 (10-6, lost in Final Four)
    2020: 8.4 (15-3, Tournament Canceled)
    2014: 8.3 (12-6, lost in National Championship)
    2023: 5.1 (12-6, lost in Second Round)
    2013: 3.3 (12-6, NIT)
    2018: 2.4 (10-8, lost in Second Round)
    2021: 1.7 (8-9, no post-season)

  11. Meanwhile, Morehead State has won the OVC! The Eagles finished in a three-way tie with UT-Martin and Little Rock. Last night, they beat UT-Martin 84 to 78. And tonight, they beat Little Rock 69-55 for the title. They will capture both the Current OVC and the Classic OVC.

  12. I'm adding "learn about Morehead State" to my list of things to do in my grief after I become an empty nester in the fall.