LEXINGTON, Ky. – Tennessee took it to Kentucky for about a half.
Jarnell Stokes took it to the Wildcats for a full game.
But like so many opponents that have made the trip to Lexington before – Tennessee couldn’t put together a complete game good enough to knock off a squad that is 78-2 under coach John Calipari at Rupp Arena and the Vols fell 74-68.
“I thought we played well as a team, just didn’t play well enough,” said UT coach Cuonzo Martin.
And the Vols certainly did play well in some aspects. Playing in one of the most hostile arenas in the nation, UT had one of the country’s most talented teams reeling for almost a half.
The Vols (11-6, 2-2 SEC) led the first 19 minutes of the game by as many as nine points. Stokes was a monster that even Kentucky’s lauded big men had a hard time handling. The junior, playing in front of representatives from nine NBA teams, collected 20 points and 15 rebounds.
With Stokes leading the way inside, the Vols won the rebounding battle 39-24 against a Kentucky team that came into the game leading the conference in rebounding margin.
“We’ve been rebounding like that all season,” Stokes said. “They have blue uniforms so everyone wants to make it into a big deal, but we’ve been doing that all season to just about every opponent we’ve been playing against.”
“Thought we did a tremendous job rebounding the basketball on both ends,” added Martin. “I told our guys – especially our bigs – they did a tremendous job keeping their big guys off the glass. You’re talking about one of the better offensive rebounding teams in all of college basketball, the way they crashed the offensive glass.”
UT’s domination inside wasn’t enough to hold off the Wildcats for 40 minutes, however. Kentucky (13-4, 3-1 SEC), fueled by the support of 23,000-plus fans, found its stride around the four-minute mark of the first half. After a slow start, freshman forward Julius Randle had seven straight points to help key a 10-2 run to end the first half.
The Wildcats carried that momentum into the second half. The teams swapped the lead several times early in the second, but by the 10:33 mark, the Wildcats had extended their advantage to 51-44. The lead expanded all the way to 11 for Kentucky at the 4:11 mark. And though Tennessee cut it down to within two possessions at one point, the Vols never seriously threatened again.
“We didn’t push the ball like we were supposed to – we played at their pace,” Stokes said of what changed later in the game. “They were able to bring the ball down, get a lot of isolations and one of the [Harrison] twins was getting into the lane at will.”
Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison had a career-high 26 points, while twin brother Aaron added 14. Randle finished with 18 points after scoring 16 in the first half.
The shots were falling – especially late – for Kentucky. Tennessee, meanwhile, went cold.
The Wildcats hit 43.8 percent of their 3-pointers and were a season-high 23 of 24 on free throws. The Vols hit just 2 of 13 from beyond the arc and made just 69.6 percent of their free throws.
“We came in wanting to pack it and make them hit shots,” said senior forward Jeronne Maymon. “They hit shots. You know, that’s just how the ball fell tonight. Good job to Kentucky.”
Tennessee returns home to face Arkansas on Wednesday night (8:00 p.m ET).
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga