UK earns bye in SEC tourney (w/ full SEC bracket)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – UK has certainly been bipolar, depending on the location of its games this season.

But now, they’re simply bye-winning.

A 64-58 win on Tennessee’s Senior Day gave UK (22-8, 10-6 Southeastern Conference) a No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament and a first-round bye.

Head coach John Calipari said it might have bumped UK up to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament if the Cats take care of business in the SEC, and that the win was “as much about that seed in the (NCAA) Tournament.”

UK certainly didn’t look like a top seed in the first half against Tennessee.

DeAndre Liggins was the only UK player to make more than one shot in the first 20 minutes, scoring all six of his points in that time frame.

“I let guys know in no uncertain terms, DeAndre was the only guy who showed up in the first half,” Calipari said. “He was by himself.”

Calipari had been yelling and stomping with a special vigor throughout the first half. Heading into halftime, down seven, the players knew what was coming.

“I wasn’t friendly, let me say that,” Calipari said. “It was nothing to do with execution, just competitive spirit. I went right down the room.”

Still, Calipari has mentioned before that it has to be his players’ team, not his. So the players huddled up before stepping on the court to resume play and promised to give “110 percent effort,” Terrence Jones said.

UK proceeded to go for the 50-50 balls Calipari has been imploring them to go after, winning most of them – including those that mattered most, at the end of the game.

Josh Harrellson, who Calipari said “did nothing” the first 37 minutes, grabbed two big rebounds. One allowed UK to keep possession from the two-minute mark to the one-minute mark. Free throws at the end of that sequence gave UK a five-point lead, enough to carry it to the end of the game.

“In the second half we came out with a whole different swagger,” said Jones, who did the same himself. Jones finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds after shooting 1-for-9 in the first half.

Swagger, and improved accuracy. After hitting one of five threes, UK opened the second half with a flurry, burying five 3-pointers to capture a 43-37 lead. Three came from Knight, who rebounded from a two-point first half en route to leading UK with 19 points.

“Second half I knew we would get it going,” Jones said. “We weren’t going to stay shooting that bad the whole game.”

UK had to fight off not only Tennessee in the second half, but foul trouble and a lack of timeouts.

Everyone in the six-player rotation except Jones was in foul trouble by the opening minutes of the second half.

Liggins and Doron Lamb ended up fouling out, and Darius Miller played the last six minutes with four.

UK also had burned all but one timeout in the first half, two by Calipari during the opening minutes and two by Liggins trying to keep possession for UK.

That meant UK would have to stave off any Tennessee runs without the help of regrouping with timeouts. Calipari instructed his players to either let Tennessee grab the ball to force a jump ball or throw it off their legs, if trapped.

Somehow, UK didn’t even have to use that final timeout, executing enough down the stretch to get a victory.

After the game, UK knew what it had accomplished. Jones saluted the crowd after the buzzer sounded. In the postgame press conference, with Knight, Jones and Darius Miller sitting at a table together, they were more loose than any other time this season. They laughed at each other’s answers. They joked with reporters when one enunciated Eloy Vargas’ name incorrectly.

It had the feel of a team that knew it had just gotten an important bye, while grabbing an elusive road win at the same time.

“This was as much about that seed in the tournament,” Calipari said. “And I told that to the guys. Everything we do is about that seed. It was huge, for that, for us. But it was also Senior Night for Tennessee, so great win.”


Jones and Miller starting off, with Knight joining halfway through.

Calipari, part 1:

Calipari, part 2: