If you are new to this team or this program in 2018, it’s hard to put into words what winning in Rupp Arena means for Tennessee. Take all this win means for this individual season – and it will be significant – and set it aside. We’ve got an extra day before going to Tuscaloosa, and we’ll take it. There will be plenty of words to come about seeding, brackets, RPI, etc.
Rupp Arena opened for the 1976-77 season. The Vols won twice in the first four years. In the 38 years since, the Vols had two wins: 1999 in an ugly affair like tonight, and 2006 because Chris Lofton willed it to be so.
Many, many Tennessee teams have gone into Rupp and left something beyond embarrassed. In 1993 the Vols lost to Kentucky at the SEC Tournament at Rupp by 61 points. The next four years they lost by 19, 19, 17, and 34. When the Cats came to Knoxville you could at least hope, even if only for a couple of media timeouts. When the Vols went to Lexington, hope died at the state line.
And when Tennessee Basketball came to life, first under Jerry Green and then Bruce Pearl, the results only changed those two times. Two wins in the last 19 years is bad without the 19 years of bad before it. The #6 Vols went to Rupp in 2000, en route to the Sweet 16, and lost by 13. Bruce Pearl’s 2007 team, also a Sweet 16 participant, lost by 19 in Rupp. The 2008 squad was ranked third when they faced an unraked UK team in Rupp; they lost by six. The next four years Tennessee lost by 19, 11, 12, 25, and 10. Cuonzo’s last team got it down to eight.
Rick Barnes’ first team lost in Rupp by 10. Last year the Vols lost by 25 in Lexington.
Tonight, we won.
Rick Barnes is now 4-2 against Kentucky at Tennessee.
Play this game ten times, each team wins five
If it felt like you couldn’t breathe watching this one, that’s because the entire game was played within one possession, except for one possession. Tennessee went up 50-46 on two Grant Williams free throws with 4:54 to play. That lasted ten seconds before PJ Washington hit two free throws. And that was the start of a 7-0 Kentucky run to put the Cats on the cusp of a two-possession lead, 53-50 with 3:18 to play.
Jordan Bowden kept pace with Tennessee’s next four points. Grant Williams hit two free throws when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed one. But when Gilgeous-Alexander made a jumper to put the Cats up two with 90 seconds left, Admiral Schofield missed a three. Kentucky had the ball and a two-point lead with 1:09 to play.
It wasn’t just the scoreboard, but the stat sheet as well that proved how close these two teams were tonight. Tennessee shot 42.3%, Kentucky 42.2%. Tennessee hit 23.8% from the arc, Kentucky 21.6%. The Vols were 14-of-16 (85.7%) at the line; Kentucky shot just 72% but got there more often, going 18-of-25.
Tennessee was +1 in offensive rebounding, +2 overall. Both teams blocked four shots. Kentucky had 15 turnovers, Tennessee 13. One foul separated these two teams.
But the most important difference for Tennessee was steals. Most of UT’s turnovers were self-inflicted. Most of Kentucky’s were Tennessee takeaways.
The Vols had nine steals, and two of them came in that final 1:09. Kyle Alexander came up with the first, giving them a chance to tie or take the lead. Tennessee struggled to run its offense all night; Grant Williams had just three shot attempts thanks to excellent work denying him the ball by Kentucky. Admiral Schofield’s 12 points came on 16 shots. Jordan Bowden had 13 points but was 1-of-5 from the arc.
So when in doubt on their most important possession of a game when every possession mattered, the answer was Lamonte Turner.
He was the answer at the end of regulation against Purdue, another 50/50 affair with an even better opponent. And he may very well represent Tennessee’s true ceiling in March. The Vols are a great basketball team. When he’s hot, they are an elite one.
His “why not?” three will probably leave Kentucky fans asking the opposite question, and that’s fine. A game like tonight could have gone either way. But they only go one way in the end, and tonight Tennessee wasn’t just close in Rupp, they cashed in.
Turner’s three led to the second steal in those final 61 seconds, as Jordan Bowden found the ball and found Schofield on a run-out to put the Vols up three with four seconds to play. They survived a missed Kentucky free throw in the final second, survived the building, and are helping Tennessee fans survive enormous disappointment on the football side. It’s funny how it works, but for the third time in a dozen years – after missing bowl eligibility for the first time in 17 years in 2005, watching Lane Kiffin leave in the middle of the night in January 2010, and everything that went sideways last fall – Tennessee is putting together a truly special basketball season from the ashes of autumn.
For that, for tonight, and for everything Rick Barnes has done for a program that can proudly stand on its own two feet, and quite tall tonight…for everything, we are grateful.