Eight Games, Pt. 8: Ghost Town

The Game

Hey there, pal.

To Dykes and Ravech’s credit, they’re doing the right thing throughout this game: hyping up Kentucky, because why wouldn’t you? Despite all of my personal hesitations I outlined on the previous page, this is Kentucky; they are the team that rounds into form by March in almost every season. You might as well give them the love they’ve earned.

To Kentucky’s own credit, they came out and earned it. A decent-enough 9-7 Tennessee start turned into a 24-11 deficit by way of a 17-2 Kentucky run. Kentucky isn’t much of a shooting team, as everyone knows, so this was mostly driven by two fairly predictable Kentucky trademarks on offense: lots of drives to the rim resulting in two points and lots of foul calls also resulting in two points.

It was simply way too easy. Tennessee was not exactly a team built to come back from double-digit deficits, so getting down by 13 ten minutes in was not the game plan. Tennessee didn’t quit, and even made a few shots to stay in it for a while:

But at halftime, it was Kentucky 42, Tennessee 31, and it kind of felt worse than that. There was but one redeeming factor in the first half: John Fulkerson, who had dropped 15 points on Kentucky’s defense to the tune of a 7-for-7 shooting half. The rest of the team did a terrific job of backing him up: 16 points, 6-for-16 from the field, and seven turnovers.

After Kentucky came out of the locker room and scored the first six points of the second half to take a 48-31 lead, a lot of people probably turned this game off. Who could blame them? This season felt directionless. Tennessee’s best shooter was a half-season guard. Their best player was a goofy white guy who’d just gotten done posting half the team’s points to no success. Who exactly was going to lead this team back from the brink?

Tennessee’s odds of winning this game oscillated between 2-3% with about 17 minutes to play. When Josiah-Jordan James hit this three to make it 51-37, the response from your writer here was a “woo-hoo”.

Randomly, this served as the start of a 9-0 run. Kentucky couldn’t buy one of their famed 15-foot jumpers; Tennessee started to find little pockets of success. It still felt like a loss was incoming, but hey, nice to see the team fight back a little.

When Kentucky held a 58-49 lead with 12 minutes to play, it was still “alright, probably a loss, not much to see here.” In the grand scheme of things, losing by 9 doesn’t really feel that much superior to losing by 17. I guess it’s less bad? Who knows. Even a pair of Jordan Bowden free throws to make it 58-51 were only mildly interesting at the time.

From the 11:39 mark to roughly 8:30 left, there were all of two points scored. Somehow, they were Tennessee’s. Kentucky would break this scoring drought, but Tennessee responded with an Yves Pons jumper and three more points from the spectacular Fulkerson:

No one could really explain how, but this Buzz Peterson-era Tennessee team teleported to March 2020 was suddenly only down 60-58 in Rupp Arena. Tyrese Maxey missed a layup, Jordan Bowden got the rebound, and, uh, hold on a minute:

This Tennessee team – the one that had the worst offense the school had seen since 2012, the one that lost at home to Texas A&M, the one that had collapsed in SEC play after a 4-2 start, the one with something resembling 2.5 shooting options on an average night – was beating Kentucky, in Rupp Arena, with six minutes to play.

And it kept going. Tennessee just kept getting huge shots every time it looked like Kentucky was going to say “alright, you had your fun.” Yves Pons, a career 32% three-point shooter, went 3-for-3 from downtown and every single make was absolutely massive.

One of the rare Fulkerson misses was turned into a putback by Pons, who possessed the ability to feel superhuman on certain nights.

Kentucky couldn’t keep up. It just didn’t make sense. How could this Tennessee team, the same one that trailed 51-34 and had no serious path to a comeback, be the same team that was somehow leading 79-70 with under a minute to play? Every Kentucky attempt at an answer was immediately erased by a Tennessee bucket or free throws. Across Tennessee’s final 34 possessions, they outscored Kentucky 47-22. How????

Tennessee 81, Kentucky 73, of all the results in Tennessee’s modern basketball history, is possibly the one that makes the least sense. It’s certainly one of the funniest. Kentucky, the best team in the SEC by three full games, posted their worst defensive showing in three months against THIS TENNESSEE TEAM. It doesn’t make sense. I suppose it never will. It doesn’t have to.

NEXT PAGE: The new workout plan

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