(NASHVILLE, Tn.) — Billed as a slugfest between two heavyweight fighters, the semifinal rubber match between Kentucky and Tennessee more than lived up to the hype and expectation. Early foul trouble for sophomore forward PJ Washington changed the entire complexion of the game in the winner-take-all rematch in Nashville. With Selection Sunday looming, Tennessee rallied from an eight point deficit late and upset No. 4 Kentucky (27-6) 82-78. Lackadaisical with the ball, the ‘Cats folded down the stretch and missed a golden opportunity to secure a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
During the course of the game, a total of 15 lead changes and 9 ties took place. Both teams continually traded punches throughout, but neither side could land the knockout blow. With just under three minutes left, freshman guard Keldon Johnson completed an and-one layup which gave the ‘Cats a seemingly insurmountable 72-64 lead. Shocking Big Blue Nation and the record-setting crowd of 20,933 at Bridgestone Arena, Tennessee maintained their composure and closed the trilogy game on an 18-6 run over the final 2:45—an unbelievable comeback, and a stunning loss for the ‘Cats.
“With an eight-point lead, we should win that game,” Calipari contemplated. “They said, you’re not winning the game, we’re not giving up, we’re not stopping.” Tennessee displayed both mental and physical toughness in the hard-fought win, and their pick-and-roll offense frustrated the ‘Cats defensively. After six tough games against Coach Rick Barnes in the past two years, Calipari humorously mulled over his suggestion for Barnes to accept the Tennessee job. “If I would have known he was going to do this to us, I would have said stay at Texas, don’t even come up here.”
Questionable calls at inopportune moments mucked up the game during the second-half. For the most part, Kentucky aggressively drove the ball to the basket, yet received fewer opportunities from the line. Calipari questioned the free-throw disparity during his postgame press conference noting, “In a normal game we get to the free-throw line way more than the other team. I’ll have to watch the tape to see why this happened.” Tennessee attempted 25 free-throws for the game while the ‘Cats only shot 19.
Despite logging only 20 minutes of play, PJ Washington led the ‘Cats in scoring with 16-points. A veteran leader, Washington has experienced similar situations before, and remained upbeat afterward. Asked about the message he relayed to his teammates, Washington remarked, “Just told them to keep their heads up, keep fighting. We still have a bigger tournament and it’s more important.” Washington left no doubt in regard to the team’s mindset offering, “We play next weekend, we’re going to get it right.”
Offensively, Coach Calipari ran middle pick-and-rolls for nearly an eight minute stretch. All five starters reached double figures. Keldon Johnson netted 15-points and grabbed 6 rebounds. Freshman point guard Ashton Hagans recorded a double-double with 10-points and 12 assists. Reid Travis added 11-points, and Tyler Herro rounded out the scoring with 10.
Current ESPN talking head Jay Bias (Bilas) continues his unabashed promotion for three teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference to receive No. 1 seeds on Selection Sunday—Duke, North Carolina, and Virgina. ESPN’s recent ACC bias—pun intended—infuriates members of Big Blue Nation, but rest assured, Bilas has ZERO input with the selection committee. Coach Calipari fielded a question about whether or not he thought his team deserved a No. 1 seed. Cal pondered before answering, “I don’t know. I mean, there’s a bunch of teams that would say it. I’d say we’re pretty good.” Calipari delved into the issue further pointing out, “It’s not if we’re a 1 or a 2. It’s who is the other team? I have an idea who it will be.”