[SLIDESHOW] Second half surge lifts UK over Tennessee 73-62

Freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins attemps a layup, but is fouled by a Tennessee defender during the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on Saturday. Photo by Zach Brake

Eric Bledsoe has his confidence back.

One game after saying he had lost the confidence in his shot, Bledsoe found it in the second half against Tennessee, combining with fellow freshman John Wall to score 21 of the Cats’ final 23 points to lead UK (24-1, 9-1 Southeastern Conference) to a 73-62 victory.

“Today, Eric showed so much courage in what he did and how he played,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “It was a great game. I liked what I saw.”

Bledsoe scored all 16 of his points in the second half while shooting 5-of-6 from the field and 3-of-4 from beyond the arc. Bledsoe also tallied two assists and didn’t turn the ball over in the second half.

With 10:12 remaining in the second half, Tennessee (18-6, 6-4 SEC) led UK 52-50. Over the next 7:28, Wall and Bledsoe guided the Cats to a decisive 20-4 run, combining to score all but two of the points. The run was highlighted by back-to-back Bledsoe 3-pointers from each corner that ignited a Rupp Arena crowd of 24,402 fans waiting to explode.

“We weren’t pushing at the bottom and those guys were wide open in the corners,” Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl said. “ … If I’ve got a chance to get beat by Eric Bledsoe from the three versus DeMarcus Cousins or (Patrick) Patterson in the inside, I think that’s the risk we took, the game we took, and obviously it made us tight.”

The Cats’ two other points not scored by Bledsoe or Wall in their 20-4 run came from sophomore guard DeAndre Liggins. Yet again, Liggins provided an energy boost for UK on the defensive end of the floor, catching the attention of Calipari and apparently that of a few other onlookers.

“He’s becoming a real high profile prospect, just so you know that,” Calipari said. “I mean, everybody that’s evaluating my team is all of a sudden — DeAndre is now being talked about. You’ve got people that absolutely love him.”

Liggins logged 28 minutes against the Volunteers, scoring seven points, grabbing four rebounds and dishing out four assists to go along with a block and a pair of steals.

The Cats began the game on a 6-0 run before succumbing to a 12-1 Tennessee run. The Cats then went on a 10-0 run of their own to take a 20-14 lead with 7:43 remaining in the half. By the time the buzzer sounded at halftime, the Cats led Tennessee 30-29.

At the end of the first half, Bledsoe was 0-3 from the field and nearly invisible in the game plan. Calipari said he told Bledsoe if he wasn’t shooting, he was going to be taken out of the game.

“If you don’t shoot it, they’re playing five versus four,” Calipari said, referring to his conversation with Bledsoe. “They’re not playing you in that corner, which is what happened in the first half.”

Bledsoe said he did not hesitate on his shots in the second half and let it fly. The magnitude of the game aided Bledsoe in finding his confidence, and he said he feels like he’s back. Bledsoe said Calipari didn’t care if his shots went in or not because he was confident in UK’s big men to grab the rebounds.

“In the second half of this game, Coach just told me to shoot it,” Bledsoe said.

The rivals traded baskets and small runs throughout the second half until the 10:12 mark when the Cats held the Vols to four points in seven minutes and 28 seconds of basketball.

The Cats’ 14-point lead built up in the run was the biggest lead of the game for either team, and capped off a day when the Cats celebrated hosting ESPN’s College GameDay.

“I think there was a real passion that we played with right there, and our guys really dug in, and we were taking charges,” Calipari said. “We were coming up with loose balls and there were a lot of plays that we made. … If (Bledsoe) doesn’t make those threes, and we don’t make a couple of free throws, it is a different ballgame.”