The halftime score was the first sign Tennessee was in trouble.
Kentucky somehow led Tennessee by two even though the Vols had secured the offensive rebound on 13 of the 19 first-half shots they missed, dominated the boards 23-10 and outscored the longer, more athletic Wildcats 22-8 in the paint.
Such an absurd rebounding advantage predictably wasn't sustainable in the second half, and Tennessee couldn't fix enough of its other issues to mount a serious upset bid. Andrew Harrison scored 16 of his career-high 26 points in the second half as Kentucky pulled away for a 74-66 victory.
The outcome was critical for a Kentucky team trying to bounce back from a road loss at Arkansas four days earlier and keep pace with Florida in the SEC title chase. Only the Gators and Texas A&M are ahead of Kentucky (13-4, 3-1), and the Wildcats will have the chance to hand the Aggies their first league loss Tuesday night in Lexington.
Squandering the chance for a big road win may eventually prove costly for a Tennessee team that has been a mild disappointment so far this season. At 11-6 overall and 2-2 in SEC play, the Vols have work to do to overcome unexpected losses against UTEP, NC State and Texas A&M.
Don't blame Jarnell Stokes for the Vols' inability to threaten Kentucky down the stretch. The strong but stationary 6-foot-8 forward tallied 20 points and 15 rebounds, bullying Kentucky's big men for position on the post and out-muscling and out-working them for rebounds and loose balls.
Willie Cauley-Stein was often the victim. Just days after promising to redeem himself for a listless two-point, six-rebound performance against Arkansas, the 7-foot sophomore was even worse against Tennessee, going scoreless in 19 minutes and pulling down just three rebounds.
Thankfully for Cauley-Stein, most of the other matchups went in Kentucky's favor.
With Kentucky playing one-foot-in-the-paint defense and collapsing every time a big man caught the ball in the post or a guard attacked the rim, Tennessee's guards had plenty of open looks from behind the arc. Poor shooting proved to be the Vols' undoing, however, as they sank only 2 of 13 threes, with leading scorer Jordan McRae missing six of his seven looks.
Kentucky's perimeter corps was far more successful against a similar sagging man-to-man defense from Tennessee. Not only did the Wildcats sink 7 of 16 threes, Andrew and Aaron Harrison adjusted when the Vols began extending their defense, attacking the rim in the second half and knocking down 16 of the 17 free throws they attempted.
A home win against an unranked foe doesn't signify that Kentucky has emerged as the juggernaut it was expected to be before the season, but the Wildcats continue to mature and develop with every game they play.
Meanwhile Tennessee is getting to the point where moral victories aren't good enough. If the Vols are going to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in Cuonzo Martin's three-year tenure, they desperately need some wins that count in the standings.