Vols rally late, eliminate UK in semifinals

Published 1:35 pm Sunday, March 17, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (KT) — For the first time in five years, Kentucky won’t be in the finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Tennessee made sure of it.

No. 4 Kentucky gave eighth-ranked Tennessee all it could handle before the Volunteers pulled away down the stretch for an 82-78 victory to earn a berth in the finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The second of two semifinal games couldhave been the final if not for LSU’s surprising top finish in the league during the regular season.

“It was a hard-fought game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We had our chances. We had the lead late. These guys will tell you, we usually don’t give up those kind of games. Even though we’re young, we still usually finish them off. A couple of things go against you. They took advantage, which they’d done all year. They win the game. It’s a hard-fought game for both of us.”

Now, Tennessee gets a shot at winning its first tournament title since 1979, while the Wildcats regroup and look ahead to next week’s win-or-go-home NCAA Tournament.

The Wildcats simply lost to a Tennessee outfit that blew them out in Knoxville earlier this week and a team that has won four of the last six games against Kentucky, including a sweep during the regular-season a year ago.

This time, Tennessee coach Rick Barnes expected a close encounter that transpired in Music City — a fight to the finish in a classic.

“It was a great game because it was two teams going at each other,” Barnes said. “They made a push, we made a push. Again, it was what everybody would expect from two teams that had really a great year, nice year. It was great.”

Although the two regular-season games produced lopsided victories by the home team, this one went to the wire with the Volunteers claiming an 82-78 victory to earn a berth in the SEC finals.

Kentucky led by eight down the stretch but couldn’t hold on as the Volunteers caught fire, scoring 18 of the final 24 points during the final three minutes. The Wildcats had two turnovers that led to a three-point play by Grant Williams and another the Volunteers converted into a 3-pointer that helped spark the late rally.

“With an eight-point lead, we should win that game,” Calipari said. “They said, ‘You’re not winning the game, we’re not giving up, we’re not stopping.’”

Instead of locking in on defense, Kentucky guard Tyler Herro said the Wildcats “lost focus on some of our assignments” resulting in the letdown in the closing minutes.

“They hit a few threes, regained the lead and took it from there,” he said. “… Obviously, we’ve got to fight to the end. We’ve got to play for 40 minutes. We fought hard and competed until the last second. It was a good tournament for us. We’ve just got to continue to get better and prepare for next week.”

Herro wasn’t surprised by Tennessee’s successful comeback attempt and like Barnes, he expected a down-to-the-wire encounter.

“Every time we play them, it’s going to be a war,” he said. “If we see them again, it will probably be similar to this game. We were fighting for our lives on both sides, so that’s how I think it will be in the NCAA Tournament.”

In his second game back from a knee injury, Kentucky forward Reid Travis fouled out with 2:32 remaining, giving the Wildcats one less experienced and physical presence during the most critical part of the contest.

‘“Give them credit,” Travis said. “Obviously there were some plays we wish we could have gotten back, but they started making shots and they were more aggressive down the stretch, which you’ve got to respect too. For us, it’s going to be a good learning experience.”

Kentucky has 24 hours to get over the loss and look ahead. That’s when the fun begins.