(KNOXVILLE, Tn) – Napoleon had his Waterloo. Custer had his Little Big Horn. For John Calipari and his 15th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, the scene of their demise has always seemed like Thompson-Boling Arena.
“Jeez, we’ve won some down there,” Calipari retorted, when asked at his pregame press conference why it was so hard to win in Knoxville. “Anytime I’ve been in that building, it’s packed and it’s like a game and it’s a significant game. This one will be.”
Prior to Kentucky’s 77-64 conquest of Tennessee this afternoon, the Cats had previously lost four in a row, 5 of the last 6, and 8 out of the last 12 games in Thompson-Boling. Whether jinxed, cursed, or simply snake bit, suffice it to say that Knoxville has not been kind to the men in blue.
Since 2013, there have been blowouts (88-58 in 2013, 71-52 in 2019), nail-biters (82-80 in 2017), and everything in between (84-77 in 2016, 76-65 in 2018). We’ve witnessed big leads squandered as well as rallies that fell short. Regardless of pace of play or fouls being called, the outcome, however, was always the same. Kentucky left Thompson-Boling with another loss in hand.
Cats overcome sloppy start
After a less-than-stellar start which saw them commit 10 fouls and 8 turnovers in the first 12 minutes of play, Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 SEC) clawed its way out to a 26-15 lead at the 6:23 mark of the first half.
Johnny Juzang came off the bench to hit two big 3-pointers as the Cats settled for a 37-30 halftime lead. In the second half, Tennessee (13-10, 5-5 SEC) could get no closer than four—the last time at 53-49 at the 8:22 mark.
Immanuel Quickley led Kentucky in scoring with 18 points. Tyrese Maxey and Nick Richards chipped in with 15-apiece. Juzang finished with a career-high 13 points on 4-of-4 shooting (3-of-3 three-pointers). As we’ve come to expect, Kentucky sealed the deal by hitting 22-25 from the free throw line. Holding the Vols to 35% shooting also contributed greatly to the victory.
With the win, Calipari improves his record to 4-6 at Thompson-Boling. “It’s not great,” he admitted. But at least it’s not 0-10, like it had seemed. I concur—because for the first time in my lifetime, I witnessed, in-person, a win over Rocky Top in Knoxville.
How significant was this win?
Not only did the victory help the Cats keep pace with Auburn and LSU in the league standings, but if you’ve set your sights on Championship No. 9, then this win was H-U-G-E. Kentucky has never won an NCAA championship without first winning in Knoxville during the regular season. In addition, during the Coach Cal era, the Wildcats have never advanced to a Final four without winning in Thompson-Boling. This win also marks the first time Calipari has beaten his good buddy, Rick Barnes, on his home court.
How sweet was this win?
For those of you familiar with the history of this rivalry over the past half century, you undoubtedly remember Kentucky’s visits to the old Stokely Athletic Center. This “house of horrors” was the precursor to Thompson-Boling and produced countless nightmare scenarios involving ghoulish characters such as Ray Mears, Don Devoe, and the Ernie and Bernie Show.
In Joe B. Hall’s 13 seasons as Kentucky’s head coach (1972-85), the Wildcats were 1-12 versus Tennessee in Stokely. To be honest, I don’t even recall that one win. All I remember were the accumulating losses as fanatical orange-clad fans pelted Kentucky players with oranges as they left the court.
Things were sure different today. The only things coming down from the stands were shouts of “Go Big Blue” as the final seconds ticked away. For those of us who made the trip down to Knoxville, the drive back to Lexington just got a whole lot shorter.