Rockin’ rupp

Cats upset No. 3 Vols, knock off first top-5 opponent since 2005

Twenty-six point four seconds.

The clock read 0:26.4 when freshman forward Patrick Patterson dropped in two free throws, pushing the UK lead to eight points and all but sealing the biggest win thus far in the Billy Gillispie Era.

And after those 26.4 seconds ran off the clock, Patterson and the Cats (8-9, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) celebrated their 72-66 win over No. 3 Tennessee (16-2, 3-1 SEC) last night in front of 23,443 fans at Rupp Arena.

“I was like, ‘God please, if there is a God, help me out here,’ ” Patterson said. “I knew I could make it, but I was hoping it wouldn’t rim out, but luck was on my side and it went in. I was tired but I was fighting through it.”

The Cats did it with a newfound interior offense and a stifling defense, a surprise given Gillispie’s harsh criticisms of UK’s defense after its loss to Florida on Saturday night.

Patterson and fellow big man Perry Stevenson combined for 34 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Cats to their first win over a top-five team since beating Louisville in 2005. Patterson led the Cats with 20 points and 8 boards.

On a night when Tennessee was supposed to boast the balanced offense, it was UK who tallied four double-digit scorers, as senior guards Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford added 16 and 10 points, respectively.

Tennessee’s Chris Lofton, a Maysville, Ky., native, came out of the gate hot, scoring 14 first-half points and propelling the Volunteers to a 36-30 halftime lead. But Lofton didn’t score in the second half until he hit two free throws with 2:19 left to play. Lofton was able to break the SEC career record for 3-pointers, nailing five to push his total to 367, passing former Arkansas Razorback Pat Bradley.

The Cats held Tennessee to just 38.6 percent shooting, including a 7-for-26 performance behind the 3-point line. JaJuan Smith and Tyler Smith, two of UT’s three leading scorers coming into the game, combined for only 12 points.

Meanwhile, the Cats shot 48.9 percent from the field, including 12-for-24 in the second half.

Tennessee stretched the lead to 10 early in the second half on forward Wayne Chism’s dunk, but a quick 6-0 run got the Cats back into the game. Another 8-0 run, sparked by consecutive Joe Crawford 3-pointers, tied the game at 50, and both teams traded baskets — and leads — from there.

Crawford was knocked to his back on the first basket and appeared to have aggravated his foot injury. Gillispie tried and failed to garner the attention of the officials during Tennessee’s possession to get Crawford out. On the next possession, Crawford hit the second 3-pointer, tying the game and bringing the Rupp Arena crowd to its feet.

The team’s traded leads several times after that, but after two Lofton free throws tied the game at 60 with 2:19 to play, UK sealed the game from its own charity stripe. By the time Patterson stepped to the line with 24.6 seconds left, the game appeared to be — and ultimately was — a done deal.

UK closed the game by making 12 consecutive free throws in the final 90 seconds and walked out of the gym with what Gillispie called the “perfect” win.

“The way it happened was perfect,” he said. “These guys have figured it out — it’s a 40-minute game. They’re going to be as tough as anybody we play against no matter what the situation might be. They’re going to battle ‘til the end every single time. That’s what makes you so proud as a coach.”