The visiting Wildcats crashed the party, however, by crashing the boards down the stretch. The Big Blue missed six of its last eight shots but, incredibly, pulled down six offensive rebounds and parlayed them into a 13-6 finishing kick and a 64-58 victory.
Counting five defensive rebounds, UK won the backboard battle 11-0 over the game's final six minutes, prompting head coach Bruce Pearl to note that "Obviously, rebounding was a big factor down the stretch. We had a couple of chances where we got stops but couldn't secure a rebound."
Indeed. Here's a recap of the final 5:30:
- Brandon Knight misses a 3-pointer but Josh Harrellson gets the offensive rebound for Kentucky. Terrence Jones hits a jump shot seconds later for a 53-52 lead with 5:20 remaining.
- Darius Miller hits two free throws to widen the gap to 55-52 with 4:28 left.
- Jones grabs a defensive rebound, misses a layup on the other end but grabs the offensive rebound and is fouled. He makes one of two shots, padding the lead to 56-52 with 3:36 to go.
- Scotty Hopson scores a three-point play for Tennessee but Miller answers with a 3-point basket for Kentucky with 2:53 left.
- Harrellson grabs a defensive rebound but commits a turnover. Hopson hits one of two free throws for Tennessee, narrowing the gap to 59-56 with 2:11 left.
- Jones misses a 3-pointer but Harrellson rebounds. Knight misses a 3-pointer but Harrellson again grabs the offensive rebound. Harrellson misses a layup but Jones grabs the offensive rebound. Knight is fouled moments later and makes both free throws, giving Kentucky a 61-56 lead with 1:02 left. (That possession saw the Cats run 1:09 off the clock before scoring.)
- Hopson hits a pair of foul shots, trimming the deficit to 61-58 with 55 seconds left. Miller misses an 18-foot jumper as the shot clock is about to expire but Harrellson outbattles two Vols for the rebound and the ball goes out of bounds off Tennessee with 22 seconds left. Forced to foul, Tennessee sends Jones to the line. He nails two game-clinching free throws for a 63-58 lead with 16 seconds remaining.
- After a missed 3-pointer by Melvin Goins and a defensive rebound by Jones, Jones adds a free throw with two seconds left to secure the final margin.
Although 6-foot-10 Vol rebound leader Brian Williams missed the game with a back injury, Pearl declined to use that as an alibi.
"I wouldn't even begin to make excuses," the coach said. "We've got enough guys out there that can rebound the ball with two hands."
The win gives No. 20 Kentucky (22-8 overall, 10-6 SEC) sole possession of second place in the Eastern Division, the No. 2 seed for the conference tournament and the coveted first-round by that goes with it.
Unranked Tennessee (18-13, 8-8), as the East's No. 5 seed, will face West No. 4 seed Arkansas in Round 1 of the conference tourney Thursday at 7:30 in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
The Vols played hard enough and well enough to beat Kentucky except for two critical lapses. The first occurred when they came out flat for the second half, enabling the Cats to make an 18-4 run that turned a 22-29 halftime deficit into a 40-33 lead. The Big Blue made four of four 3-pointers during the explosion and improved to five of five before finally missing a second-half trey.
Still, Tennessee survived that salvo and clawed back to go ahead 52-51 when Kenny Hall scored on a nice inside move with 5:56 remaining. That's when the Vols suddenly forgot how to rebound, however, enabling Kentucky to post seven second-chance points and win by six.
Freshman forward Tobias Harris, who led Tennessee in both points (18) and rebounds (6), said the Vols could've used Brian Williams, "especially at the end of the game when we didn't get those rebounds. That's what basically killed us."
Asked if the Vols' late struggles on the backboards were due to Kentucky crashing or Tennessee failing to box out, Harris replied: "It was a combination of both. All of those guys crashed, from the point guard to the center, and we didn't check out."
Hall, a 6-foot-9 sophomore who played 21 minutes in Williams' absence, said: "We was all fighting down there but, unfortunately, the ball just bounced their way."
Eleven times, apparently. The Vols did not manage a single rebound - offensive or defensive - over the game's final 6:00.
"It was disappointing that we never made that last play to give ourselves a chance to come back and win the game," Pearl said.
Heralded freshman Brandon Knight made just 5 of 15 field-goal tries but led Kentucky with 19 points. Fellow rookie Terrence Jones added 15, hitting just 3 of 15 field goals but 9 of 15 foul shots.
Other than Harris, Scotty Hopson (13) was the only double-figure scorer for Tennessee. The junior wing nailed 9 of 11 free throws but made just 2 of 10 field-goal tries against a stifling Wildcat defense.
"They threw a couple of guys at me quicker and made my catches tougher," Hopson said. "When I started to drive they threw a couple of (help-side defenders) at me quicker and made it tougher on the shots."
Tennessee shot just 38.3 percent (18 of 47) from the field and 22.2 percent (2 of 9) from 3. The Vols limited Kentucky to 35.8 percent (19 of 53) from the field but allowed the Cats to connect on 38.9 percent (7 of 18) from 3.
Outrebounded 31-27 through the game's first 34 minutes, Kentucky's 11-0 surge over the final six minutes produced a 38-31 edge that ultimately proved decisive.