LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Even Billy Gillispie smiled about this one.
Playing the kind of gritty defense that was the first-year Kentucky coach’s trademark during his days at Texas A&M, the Wildcats smothered No. 3 Tennessee 72-66 on Tuesday night, forcing even the perennially grumpy Gillispie to crack a smile as the final seconds ticked away.
“We’re really getting tough,” Gillispie said. “I’m telling you they were tired going into the game (but) our guys really fought hard. They dug as deep as they possibly could.”
Patrick Patterson led Kentucky (8-9, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) with 20 points and eight rebounds. Ramel Bradley had 16 points and Perry Stevenson added 14 points and seven rebounds for the Wildcats, who were 24-of-28 from the free throw line and shot 49 percent from the field.
But it was Kentucky’s defense—which Gillispie had said was so porous at times this season it made him ill—that pushed the Wildcats to their first win over a top five team since beating then-No. 4 Louisville in December 2005.
Kentucky held the Volunteers (16-2, 3-1) to just three field goals over the final 10 minutes to snap their 11-game winning streak. Tennessee’s 66 points were the fewest the Volunteers have scored this season and nearly 20 points below their average.
“They missed some shots tonight they usually make,” Gillispie said. “I thought our defense was pretty good. They are so hard to guard. We did an outstanding job.”
Though Tennessee’s Chris Lofton scored 22 points, knocking down five 3-pointers to set the SEC record for career 3s with 367 to break the mark held by former Arkansas guard Pat Bradley, Kentucky did an excellent job shutting down the rest of the Volunteers.
“We helped out each other on defense,” Patterson said. “We were passionate tonight.”
Tennessee shot just 39 percent from the field, including 7-of-26 on 3-pointers. Take out Lofton’s 5-of-10 effort from behind the arc, and the rest of the Volunteers were 2-of-16. Rather than try to exploit its size advantage in the lane, Tennessee settled for 3-pointers down the stretch, with disastrous results.
“We didn’t have that intensity,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “I don’t think it’s because we were too confident at all. I just think getting up for a game every single night (is difficult).”
Though the Wildcats have struggled during much of Gillispie’s tumultuous season—losing to Gardner-Webb and San Diego at home during a nightmarish nonconference schedule—the worst may finally be over.
“I told my team coming in that Kentucky didn’t come in struggling, they’ve been playing the best basketball they have all season,” Pearl said. “I think the last couple of weeks they’ve been playing well.”
The win was Kentucky’s second over a ranked opponent at Rupp Arena in less than two weeks. The Wildcats beat then-undefeated Vanderbilt in double overtime on Jan. 12, escaping after blowing a 16-point lead.
They showed more grit in this one, rallying from 10 points down early in the second half, eventually tying the game at 50 with 11 minutes left on Joe Crawford’s second consecutive 3-pointer.
The teams spent the next 9 minutes trading the lead before the Wildcats went ahead for good, 62-60, on two free throws by Bradley with 1:30 left.
Tyler Smith missed a 3-pointer—a common refrain for the Volunteers in the final minutes—and Bradley hit two more free throws to push the lead to four. Lofton then missed a rushed 3-pointer and Jodie Meeks hit two free throws to put it away.
“We had the shots that we wanted, but I think we rushed them,” said Tennessee forward Wayne Chism, who had 12 points. “We had good looks, we just couldn’t knock them down at the end.”
Gillispie knew his young, inexperienced squad couldn’t run with the deeper, more athletic Volunteers, so Kentucky spent most of the game grinding it out. The Wildcats would run 25 to 30 seconds off the shot clock at times, trying to shorten the game.
It worked despite the best efforts of Lofton. Mired in a shooting slump for much of the season, Lofton didn’t waste any time heating up on the court where he became a high school legend. The native of Maysville—about an hour northeast of Rupp Arena—gave the Wildcats one last look at what they’ve been missing the last four years.
He hit a 3-pointer 2 minutes in, then took advantage of some overaggressive Kentucky defense by faking the jumper then slicing through the lane for two layups. He ended the half in style, giving the Volunteers a 36-30 lead with a fallaway 3-pointer just before the horn sounded.
Lofton disappeared for long stretches in the second half and was held without a field goal until the final 12 seconds, likely ending the highest ranking in Tennessee history.
“This was a huge confidence boost for us,” Patterson said. “We believed we could win. When we play like this and believe in ourselves, we can roll.”