For a guy who has spent three years hearing that he's not a “true" point guard, Tennessee's Trae Golden did a pretty good impersonation of one Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vol junior made 6 of 8 field goals, 11 of 12 foul shots, scored a game-high 24 points, dished a game-high 8 assists and played 29 minutes without a turnover in leading Tennessee to an 88-58 blowout of No. 25 Kentucky before a CBS national audience and 21,678 stunned fans – some wearing blue, most wearing orange.
Neither fan base could have seen this one coming. The 30-point margin was the largest by Tennessee in the history of the series … 216 games in all.
Even with star shot-blocker Nerlens Noel sidelined by a torn ACL, Kentucky put some formidable young talent on the floor. It didn't matter, however, because Golden took over the game almost from the opening tip.
“I thought Trae Golden really led us from start to finish,” Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin said. “He did a great job of running the team and being Trae Golden – attacking the rim and making plays. When that happens everything else falls in line: The shooters are ready to shoot the ball, we're dribble-penetrating, and they (opponents) have to identify five guys instead of two or three.
“We've gotten better on offense – the flow and the movement – but I think that all starts with Trae Golden. When he's playing the way we expect him to play, everything just falls in line and it becomes a fun game.”
Early January was no fun for Golden, who struggled so mightily that he was benched. When Tennessee's turnovers soared during his absence, however, he rejoined the lineup. In the three games since reclaiming his starting job he has scored 52 points with 12 assists and just 4 turnovers.
The obvious question: Why has he been so up and down?
“If I knew I would've fixed it,” he said. “There's a lot of valleys and peaks in this game, so I kept working, staying in the gym and trying to get better every day. It's starting to finally pay off for me.”
That was evident from the opening minutes of Saturday's game. With the score tied 7-7, Golden made a coast-to-coast drive and two free throws in a 9-0 spurt that produced a 16-7 Vol lead. After a 3-pointer by Kentucky, Golden hit two free throws, a 10-foot bank shot in transition and a 3 from the left corner to spark a 19-2 explosion that gave Tennessee a 35-12 bulge with 7:22 left to intermission.
It was 50-26 at the half, as Tennessee shot 56.7 percent (17 of 30) from the field and 100 percent (4 of 4) from 3-point range. Playing “small ball” for the second game in a row (Jarnell Stokes and four guards), Tennessee's pesky defense limited Kentucky to 33.3 percent shooting (9 of 27) and forced 10 first-half turnovers.
Tennessee sank six of its first seven shots to start the second half, building the lead to 66-32 with 14:45 remaining. The bulge peaked at 39 points (86-47) with 2:28 remaining.
As expected, Kentucky crowded Stokes, the 6-foot-8, 270-pound Vol post who came in riding a streak of six consecutive double-doubles. Limited by fouls to 20 minutes, he saw that streak snapped (9 points, 9 rebounds). Ultimately, the Big Blue's focus on Stokes created more operating room for Golden.
“I just try to be aggressive,” Golden said. “Obviously, they're going to sink on Jarnell. If they're going to stay with him, then I'll have a driving lane. If they come up I can pass it to him. There are different options, and I try to use them to my advantage.”
Jordan McRae added 15 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks for Tennessee, now 14-10 overall and 6-6 in SEC play. Kenny Hall came off the bench to contribute 12 points. Fellow reserve Skylar McBee added nine, going 3 for 3 from 3-point range.
Kyle Wiltjer scored 18 points and Julius Mays 12 to pace Kentucky, now 17-8 overall and 8-4 in league action.
Tennessee shot a sizzling 58.0 percent from the field, 100 percent (5 of 5) from 3 and 80.6 percent from the foul line. The Big Orange limited the Big Blue to 35.8 percent shooting and dominated the backboards 39-21 in manhandling the visitors for 40 minutes.
Asked what it meant to hand Kentucky its worst loss in series history, Golden smiled.
“To me personally it means a lot,” he said. “I think it means even more to Tennessee. I hadn't beaten Kentucky since I've been in college, so this was a great win for us today.”
One can only imagine how big Tennessee's victory margin would've been if the Vols had a “true" point guard.