KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Tennessee celebrated the return of one of its greatest all-time players and his teammates with a victory over its biggest rival.
Chris Lofton scored 23 points and Duke Crews added 18 to help the Volunteers upset No. 20 Kentucky 89-85 on Tuesday night.
Tennessee (18-8, 6-5 Southeastern Conference) had plenty of motivation with the school’s big promotion of the game—“Paint the Town Orange”—and a halftime ceremony to retire No. 53 worn by former All-American and NBA All-Star Bernard King.
Not to mention the opponent was border rival Kentucky (18-7, 7-4), which as usual had its share of Big Blue fans who made the trip to Thompson-Boling Arena.
“It’s a great night for Tennessee basketball and Bernard King is still beating Kentucky. That’s six in a row for Bernard,” said Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who was again wearing that blinding orange blazer.
“I thank Kentucky and (coach) Tubby Smith and his basketball team for helping us celebrate this with a tremendous basketball game. It wouldn’t be the same without them.”
King and teammate Ernie Grunfeld, who is now director of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards, formed “The Ernie & Bernie Show” in the late 1970s when Tennessee ruled the rivalry.
After King lost to Kentucky as a freshman in 1975, he vowed he would never lose to the Wildcats again, and his team won five straight.
But Kentucky has ruled the series lately.
The Wildcats had won 10 of 11 against Tennessee and four straight in Knoxville. Kentucky won this year’s earlier meeting in Lexington 76-57, but Lofton didn’t play in that game because of a sprained right ankle.
The SEC’s leading scorer made a difference this time when the Vols had a key 15-5 run in the first half that gave them the lead for good.
But Kentucky didn’t go away and set up a dramatic finish. After Tennessee pushed its lead to 16 with 16:38 left, the Wildcats kept chipping away.
“I thought our team fought hard and showed a lot of character after being down,” Smith said. “You can’t give a team like Tennessee this many chances.”
A 7-0 run by Kentucky cut it to 70-68 with 6:22 left. The Wildcats trimmed it to one point twice after that and finally tied it at 77 with 3:54 to go, but the Vols didn’t give up the lead.
After Kentucky’s Randolph Morris scored with 1:46 left to make it 83-81, the Wildcats had two straight turnovers and couldn’t get off a shot until it was too late.
Lofton went 5-of-6 at the foul line in the final 29.5 seconds to ice the game.
Wayne Chism added 16 points and Ramar Smith had 10 for Tennessee.
Kentucky was led by Joe Crawford with 24 points while Ramel Bradley and Morris each added 14 and Jodie Meeks had 10. Morris also grabbed 12 rebounds.
“There was no point in the game we thought we would lose no matter how many we were down,” Morris said. “We clawed our way back, but came up short in the end.”
Bradley, who had scored at least 20 points the previous four games, picked up his fourth foul early in the second half and fouled out in the final seconds.
The game was even most of the first half until Tennessee got hot from the outside, hitting five 3-pointers in a 15-5 run that broke a tie and ended up putting the Vols ahead 36-26 with 3:28 remaining before the break. Smith immediately called timeout and took his jacket off.
Lofton and Jordan Howell each had two and Ryan Childress had another 3 during the spurt.
Tennessee was ahead 40-30 at halftime.
“We showed pretty good poise,” Pearl said. “They made some plays and so did we. We didn’t just sit back and take what they gave us. We dictated at times with our defense.”
Lofton, a native of Maysville, Ky., has had big games against the Wildcats. He was 6-of-14 from the field and 7-of-8 at the free throw line.
“At the end, we were trying to keep the ball from one of the best free-throw shooters in the country, Chris Lofton, and we couldn’t,” Tubby Smith said.
Kentucky finished with 19 turnovers—10 from steals by the Vols—but outrebounded Tennessee 39-27 and shot 56 percent from the field (31-of-55).
The Vols improved to 14-0 at home against one of the toughest road teams in the league.
Kentucky lost 64-61 to top-ranked Florida on Saturday, but came to a place Tuesday where the Wildcats have had success recently.
Kentucky had won four straight in Knoxville since 2002 and swept Tennessee the three seasons before last year when they split the series.