Last night's game at Rupp Arena between Tennessee and Kentucky wasn't pretty. The teams traded good offense for great defense and down the stretch it was a lot of fun to watch. The Volunteers went into the game looking for their first season sweep of the Wildcats in nearly twenty years. The Big Orange claimed a 76-65 win in Knoxville earlier this season as part of their 17-5 start to what has been a magical season so far. That magic continued at Rupp Arena with Tennessee claiming a 61-59 victory.
The two teams slugged it out like a pair of heavyweight boxers with neither team ever taking a big lead in the game. The Vols biggest lead was four while the Wildcat's biggest advantage was a mere three points.
Every time Kentucky would give the Big Blue Nation something to stand and cheer about, the Vols would score a basket, get a rebound or get a big steal to turn the arena silent. Since a four point loss at Missouri a couple of weeks ago, the Vols have won three straight and are now 18-5 overall and 8-3 in the SEC.
This season has been so exciting for Coach Rick Barnes and his team. After all, Tennessee was picked to finish thirteenth out of fourteen SEC teams in the pre-season polls. Boy were those media pundits wrong. (They also picked Auburn way down the list and the Tigers are now 19-2.)
Despite the low pick in the polls, the Vols have done exactly what Rick Barnes teams do. Barnes has won everywhere he has coached. Providence, Clemson, Texas and now Tennessee. His teams have always played hard but I find it hard to believe any of his previous teams played any harder than this year's group of Volunteers. With less than six minutes left in the first half, the score was tied 12-12. Both teams were playing great defense and even though the scoring picked up in the second half, a 61-59 final score is not what you would usually expect from a Tennessee-Kentucky game.
All this success and the Vols still have one of the youngest teams in the country. The Vols leading scorer and rebounder is sophomore Grant Williams but the team has had many contributors so far. Guard Lamonte Turner hit some big threes against the Wildcats and Admiral Schofield is perhaps the Vols best all-around player; a guy who hits the three, rebounds and plays great defense. 6-11 post player Kyle Alexander is tremendously improved and Coach Barnes has plenty of depth on his bench. With James Daniel III being the only senior on the roster, things look really bright for Coach Barnes and his Volunteers for a few seasons to come.
With all the sickness going around and with the cooler damp weather on the outside, it was a real pleasure to stay inside and watch the Vols and Wildcats battle it out on television. With just a few weeks remaining until March Madness begins, it's exciting to think about what may be in store for this Tennessee team. Some of those same media pundits who picked them thirteenth in the SEC are now saying the Volunteers could be in line for a number one or two seed in the Big Dance. I wouldn't go that far but boy they are sure are fun to watch!
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Randy Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org