Poor shooting halts Kentucky; Cats fall 69-62 to Tennessee in SEC Tournament


Kentucky players walk off of the court after the UK vs. Tennessee SEC Tournament semifinal mens basketball game on Saturday, March 12, 2022, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. UK lost 69-62. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Hunter Shelton

TAMPA, Fla.—Kentucky (26-7) exits the SEC Tournament after a dull, uninspiring performance in the semifinals against Tennessee. 

After trailing 4-2, Tennessee (25-7) would grab ahold of the lead and not let go for the remainder of the game, out-hustling the Wildcats en route to a 69-62 victory. 

“We had our chances,” UK coach John Calipari said after the loss. “Congratulations to Tennessee, they did a great job, they fought.”

The Volunteers did more than fight. They won the shooting battle, the battle on the glass and the hustle battle, even besting the Cats on some simple plays that led to easy buckets down the stretch. 

“This we knew would be a physical, bump and grind game and I thought we held our own,” Calipari said. “You can’t win national championships on plays like that. You cannot because a good team will make you pay just like Tennessee made us pay.” 

Despite shooting 34 percent as a team, including a horrific 2-20 from 3-point range, Kentucky found itself within one or two possessions of the Volunteers with less than a minute to go. 

The Cats had chances on top of chances, but were unable to find that stride to propel them back in front. Tennessee would play the final three minutes without scoring a field goal, but UK would miss its final four shots in crunch time. 

“We were 2-20 (from 3-point range) folks, we could have won this game. Think about what i’m saying,” Calipari said. 

It’s something to think about, that’s for sure. Calipari is going to think about it quite a bit on the trip back to Lexington, it sounds like:

“I liked the fact we had a chance to win…I thought we were gonna win, I went crazy,” he said. “We had some of those plays that I was laughing. I’m, like, if we win this game…”

Tennessee took the rubber match, winning in similar fashion to how they did in Knoxville. Kennedy Chandler led the Vols with 19 points on 8-16 shooting. Tennessee as a team shot 44 percent, though they made just one more shot than Kentucky. 

Keion Brooks Jr led Kentucky in points, scoring 19 in what was his most efficient game in over a month, when he scored 20 against Vanderbilt in Lexington. 

TyTy Washington Jr would score 17 points of his own, though it came on 16 shot attempts. That same rhythm that the freshman found on Friday against the Commodores was nowhere to be found when UK needed it. 

“I feel like the looks that we got were good. It was just one of those days where the ball didn’t go in for us,” Brooks said. “There were some situations where we didn’t help each other out with getting open to get some of those shots, and sometimes we weren’t shot-ready when the ball was kicked out to us.” 

Kellan Grady was unable to get going on Saturday, the graduate transfer scored just two points on 1-8 shooting, failing to make a 3-pointer.

While none of the Cats had an exceptional night from the field, Grady’s inability to snipe shined on the box score. 

Even National Player of the Year frontrunner Oscar Tshiebwe, despite notching 13 points and 11 rebounds his 27th double-double of the season, couldn’t find that second gear.

He played just eight minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, which would turn out to be his demise late, as he fouled out with under four minutes to go.

Tennessee would stifle any momentum that the Cats could build, especially late, as they played the free throw game to perfection, while UK couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn when the shots had to go down. 

Calipari, a known hater of conference tournaments, isn’t that concerned with his team moving into the NCAA Tourney.

“I think we’re in really good shape. We got three guys at every position,” he said. “Plan to play great. I believe in this team. Let me ask you, if we would have pulled this off, what would everybody in the country say? ‘Oh, my God, they just played like that and won? You do not want to play them’. That’s what I told them after. We’re fine.” 

While the Volunteers will move on to the championship game against the surging Texas A&M Aggies, Kentucky will head back home to prepare to hear its name called for a ticket to the big dance. 

A two seed is the likely outcome for the Cats, but Calipari knows regardless of what number is in front of UK’s name, the road to a ninth title won’t be easy. 

“Probably be a two [seed], maybe a three. Who knows? I’m not in the room, but we’ll see. My guess is it will be a very hard path because it always is.”

For now, Calipari is ready to ditch the Sunshine State: 

“Let’s go home. I would like to be home by 8:30 to see my dogs, kiss my dogs.” 

The selection show is slated for 6 p.m. EST on Sunday, March 13, as the Cats’ seed and bracket will be revealed, along with 67 other contenders vying for the 2022 National Championship.