Kentucky stuns No. 5 Tennessee as Wildcats bounce back in big style with first Quad 1 win of the season

Kentucky bounced back from a stunning home loss to South Carolina by beating No. 5 Tennessee 63-56 on the road as double-digit underdogs on Saturday. Playing short-handed without starting point guard Sahvir Wheeler, the Wildcats dominated on the boards and bounced back from an early 8-0 deficit to finally claim their first Quad 1 win of the season.

Tennessee (14-3, 4-1 SEC) came out as a 10.5-point favorite with the nation’s No. 1 defense, but Kentucky leveraged a 12-4 lead on second chance points to add 19 turnovers overcome. The Wildcats (11-6, 2-3) won the rebound fight 43-23, ending Tennessee’s 25-game home winning streak.

Uros Plavsic netted a career-high 19 points for the Volunteers, who bounced back from a 58-50 deficit to have a chance to level the game or take the lead in the last minute. But after a missed shot by Plavisc with 32 seconds remaining, the Wildcats ended the game.

In addition to the absence of Wheeler, who missed the game with a shoulder injury, the Wildcats were also without reserve forward Daimion Collins with a foot injury. Freshman guard Cason Wallace played but appeared limited and failed to score after injuring his back in the South Carolina loss.

With a limited rotation, guards Antonio Reeves and CJ Fredrick made it big for the Wildcats. Reeves scored 18 points and Fredrick added 13 while Oscar Tshiebwe finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds.

After making its first 3-1 start in the SEC game since the 1986-87 season, Kentucky entered the game off the scheduled NCAA tournament field, according to CBS Sports Bracketology expert Jerry Palm. But Saturday’s win marks the biggest of the year for the Wildcats.

Fresh life for the ‘Cats

Kentucky started the season ranked No. 4 on the AP Top 25 and a preseason favorite to win the SEC. But the first two months of coach John Calipari’s 14th season have been nothing short of disappointing. A 78-52 loss in Alabama last Saturday, followed by the stunning Gamecocks loss on Tuesday, infuriated the proud Wildcats fanbase, most of whom turned on their legendary coach.

The program’s last NCAA tournament win came in 2019, and the team’s performance last week raised questions about whether these Wildcats have what it takes to even make the Big Dance this season. However, an away win over the Volunteers changes the prospects.

Kentucky has a manageable series of games ahead of them, with home dates against Georgia and Texas A&M next week, followed by a game in Vanderbilt before a Big 12/SEC Challenge showdown at home with No. 2 Kansas on Jan. 28. If the Wildcats can use the momentum built against Tennessee to handle deals over the next two weeks, they have a chance to completely turn the narrative of this season when the Jayhawks come to town.

Do it on the line

Kentucky ranked 323rd nationally for free throw shooting percentage with 65.6%. The Wildcats only made 7 of 14 tries against South Carolina. They also made just 5 of 8 tries against Alabama and were a terrible 5 of 13 from the line in a loss to UCLA in December.

But against the Volunteers, free-throw shooting was a forte for the Wildcats, who made 22 of 25 attempts, including 14 of 16 in the second half. Tennessee made just 7 of 10 free throws as the Wildcats controlled the game with their physicality and used the Volunteers’ defensive aggression against them to pull 24 fouls.

Tennessee concerns

Tennessee retired former star guard Chris Lofton’s jersey at halftime. A native of Maysville, Kentucky, he played for the Volunteers from 2004 to 2008 and is the SEC’s all-time leader in 3-pointers scored with 431. The Vols could have used some of his sniping ability against the Wildcats as they only managed 3 attempts out of 21 from deep. In the second half, Tennessee made just 1 of 12 attempts from beyond the arc.

The poor shooting performance underscored long-term concerns for the Volunteers, who were again strong defensively, keeping Kentucky at just 35.3% shooting. While its defense is elite, Tennessee is prone to crippling offensive dips, and that was certainly the case on Saturday as the Volunteers suffered their first league loss.