Noel, Cats beat Vols 75-65



By David Schuh | @DSchuhKernel

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John Calipari has seen this pattern several times this year. His team has itself within striking distance, late in the game, and has failed to make the plays necessary to close it out.

Tuesday, in a game many thought UK couldn’t afford to lose, the Cats made those plays on their way to a 75-65 win over Tennessee.

“We’re just learning what we have to do at the end of ballgames,” freshman forward Alex Poythress said. “We did the little things and it worked today.”

The first half was not a pretty one for either team. The Cats held a four-point lead at the break, but shot just 38 percent.

Tennessee managed to not shoot a free throw in the first half, much unlike the second, where it made 11-of-17 from the line.

UK kept that minimal lead for much of the next 10 minutes but couldn’t manage to create any serious separation. It was beginning to look much like Saturday’s loss to Texas A&M.

“I came to this conclusion,” Calipari said. “In the last seven or eight years, I’ve coached teams that have absolutely womped on people. And this ain’t one of them. … I can’t imagine this team being up 20 on anybody.”

But if it weren’t for freshman center Nerlens Noel, Calipari’s squad wouldn’t have had a lead at all. Noel did a little bit of everything against the Vols, as has become commonplace for the freshman. The 6-foot-10 center finished with 12 points, nine rebounds, six blocks and four steals.

“Noel did a tremendous job in the second half of really setting the tone defensively and altering shots,” Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin said.

For Tennessee, junior guard Jordan McRae seemed to make all the right offensive plays to keep the visitors in it.

McRae led the Vols with 23 points, and with 7:19 left, he had his team leading, 54-53.

From there, UK began to show the grittiness that Calipari has been searching for all season.

Graduate student Julius Mays hit two late 3-pointers and sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer added five points in the final three and a half minutes.

Their contributions helped UK extend its lead to seven with a minute and a half to play. The Cats finished the game out at the free-throw line to secure the their first SEC home win.

“Any time you win a game in this league, it’s a hard game, and the way we finished the game … (that) was big,” Calipari said. “We came out, we executed.”

Wiljter led the Cats with 17 points, one of four players in double figures.

“We’ve worked hard and any loss hurts,” Wiltjer said. “We didn’t want that to happen again so we just really wanted to get a close win and it feels really good that we were able to pull it out.”