Despite a second-half push by the Volunteers, Kentucky came away with the 86-69 upset over the country’s top team. The 17-point win was good for the Wildcats’ largest margin of victory over a No. 1 team in program history (because a 15-point win over No. 1 Florida back in 2003 was just too close). The Volunteers were relentless until the end, continuing to foul up until there was less than a minute left in the game, despite their double-digit deficit.
Remember, the NCAA’s new tool for March Madness selection and seeding partially relies on margin of victory, unlike the RPI system used in previous years. This season, losing by ten or more will cost a team more come Selection Sunday than losing by single digits. On the other side of the coin, a team is given more “props” for a double-digit win than they are for a game-winning buzzer beater. But, it all caps at a 10-point margin, supposedly to encourage good sportsmanship. A 34-point loss doesn’t hurt more than an 11-point loss, but it does hurt more than a one-point loss. So, yes, it’s plausible Tennessee continued to foul even when a win seemed impossible to try to break Kentucky’s lead down to single digits. But the Cats weren’t going to let that happen.
“Our vibe was just to keep our foot on their throat,” Keldon Johnson said. “Just keep executing, no matter what the score is. Don’t pay attention to the score; don’t pay attention to the time. Just go out there and execute and do what the coaches say to do.”
Of course, the Cats did let up for a few minutes, giving Tennessee the perfect opportunity to make a run. The Volunteers took advantage of Kentucky’s lapse and promptly went on a 13-0 scoring streak. But thanks to the Cats’ generous cushion from earlier in the game, Kentucky was able to withstand the attack.
“When they made their run, we just came back and locked in on defense,” Johnson said. “We knew offense would come, so we came in and locked in on defense and just grinded it out.”
Maintaining a lead is something the Cats have frequently struggled with this season. Letting their foot off the pedal was a large part of the reason why Kentucky lost to LSU just days ago. But they’ve learned from that experience and now better understand the importance of “doing what we were doing to get that lead,” according to Johnson.
And although they never had control during that horrible game at the start of the season, Kentucky’s performance against No. 1 Tennessee showcased just how far the Cats have come since their Nov. 6 matchup.
“After that, I didn’t think we’d be playing as well as we are now,” Tyler Herro said of the blowout against Duke. “We’re continuing to get better every day, coming to practice with the right mindset and pushing each other to be better.”
And what if they keep doing all of those things? Well, Herro’s feeling pretty confident.
“If we bring that same energy we brought tonight, when we share the ball like we did and lock in on defense like that, we can beat anybody in the country.”