At the buzzer: Kentucky mens basketball defeats Tennessee 66-54


Travis Fannon

Kentucky Wildcats forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) rebounds the ball during the Kentucky vs. No. 10 Tennessee mens basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Travis Fannon | Staff

Cole Parke, Sports Editor

Kentucky mens basketball earned its third quadrant-1 win of the season on Saturday, defeating No. 10 Tennessee 66-54.

The Wildcats entered the game on the back of securing their second quadrant-1 win of the season in Starkville against Mississippi State. The win over the Bulldogs saw the Cats make it back into the field of 68 in most NCAA Tournament projections after falling out following the loss at Georgia.

The other quadrant-1 win the Cats had earned this season? In Knoxville against then No. 5 Tennessee on Jan. 14.

Now heading into a rematch with the Volunteers who themselves were fresh off the back of beating No. 1 Alabama, Kentucky opted to utilize the starting lineup of Antonio Reeves, Cason Wallace, Jacob Toppin, Chris Livingston and Oscar Tshiebwe.

As for the Vols, a starting five of Jonas Aidoo, Zakai Zeigler, Olivier Nkamhoua, Jahmai Mashack and Santiago Vescovi.

Kentucky won the opening tip off but neither team would be able to come up with the first basket of the match until nearly two minutes into the game when Reeves drained a 3-pointer from the corner.

Kentucky Wildcats forward Chris Livingston (24) passes the ball during the Kentucky vs. LSU mens basketball game on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 74-71. Photo by Isabel McSwain | Staff (Isabel McSwain)

Toppin would score a free throw before the Volunteers scored their first basket of the night courtesy of Nkamhoua.

A low-scoring affair, Kentucky boasted a 12-6 lead after nearly 10 minutes of play.

With neither team having recorded more than four baskets up to that point, Livingston and Wallace co-led the Cats with four points each.

The Wildcats extended their lead to 12 points after a three-point play by Tshiebwe, who had slammed down a dunk and made the additional free throw.

That lead then grew to 13 after the Vols only managed a two and Toppin drained a 3-pointer on the other end.

Kentucky would continue to grow its lead, taking a 20-point lead into the halfway break with the score at 39-19.

The 20-point gap was made possible by an 8-0 scoring run the Wildcats took into a break, capitalizing on a Tennessee scoring drought that lasted over two minutes.

The Vols went 7-27 from the field in the first half and 1-13 from beyond the arc. For contrast, Kentucky finished the half shooting 12-28 (43%) from the field and 3-7 from beyond the arc. Perhaps more impressive was that Kentucky finished the half 12-13 from the free-throw line, bringing its first half percentage to 92% from the charity stripe.

Wallace led all scorers in the first half, being the only player in the first 20 to record a double-digit point total with 12 points. He also finished the half with four rebounds and three assists.

Livingston and Tshiebwe followed closely behind with nine points and five rebounds each.

The Wildcats led for over 18 minutes while the Vols had yet to record a lead at any point during the first half.

Kentucky used its halftime to honor members of the 1996-98 basketball teams, featuring numerous managers, assistants, players and coaches, including Tubby Smith.

Unfortunately for the Cats the momentum seemed to die during the break, with the Vols erupting for a 7-0 scoring run to cut the lead back down to 13 points and forced Kentucky head coach John Calipari to call a timeout.

The Wildcats would eventually rediscover themselves on offense though, ending the scoring run and keeping the Cats steadily ahead by around 14 after five minutes of play in the second half.

Despite the effort, the Vols shrunk the lead back down to 10 points, cutting it in half from where it was at halftime, with just under 14 minutes left to play.

Kentucky Wildcats forward Jacob Toppin (0) holds the ball during the Kentucky vs. No. 5 Tennessee mens basketball game on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023, at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee. Kentucky won 63-56. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff (Jack Weaver)

Not satisfied with seeing the lead dwindle, Toppin slammed down a dunk on the other end that sent the home fans into a frenzy.

The teams would seem to be at a stalemate all the way down to the 10-minute mark, with the lead consistently shrinking down to 10 before it was then increased back to 10, even getting to 14 again on multiple occasions.

Fans inside Rupp Arena held their breaths as Tshiebwe picked up his fourth foul with over nine minutes left to go, but with Daimion Collins filling in for “Big O”, the stalemate continued.

That said, the Vols were finally able to get the differential back to single digits with around eight minutes left to play, bringing the score to 57-48, a nine-point difference.

Despite that, with just under three minutes left to play Kentucky led 62-52, with the 20-point halftime lead proving difficult to overcome for Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes.

While the Vols refused to go down without a fight, Kentucky was ultimately victorious, with the final buzzer giving the Cats a 12-point win.

The win marked the first time since the 2014-15 season that Kentucky finished undefeated against Tennessee and the first time since the 2011-12 national-championship-winning season that the Cats finished the year undefeated against the Vols with more than one matchup between the pair.

Wallace and Tshiebwe co-led Kentucky on offense with 16 points, followed by Livingston (12) and Toppin (11). Meanwhile, Tennessee’s Vescovi led all scorers on the night with 17 points.

With the final whistle granting victory, Kentucky led for nearly all 40 after taking the lead early and never surrendering it.

With the win the Wildcats will set their sights on Gainesville, Florida, where they will travel on Wednesday to face off against the Florida Gators. Tip off against the Gators is scheduled for 7 p.m. EST and will air live on ESPN.