Downward trend continues for struggling Kentucky with loss to Tennessee

Published 10:56 am Monday, February 5, 2024

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One loss has suddenly spiraled into two for Kentucky.

The Wildcats (15-6, 5-4 Southeastern Conference) suffered their fourth loss in the past five games with a 103-92 setback to No. 5 Tennessee Saturday night. It marked the first time this season Kentucky failed to bounce back from a loss.

The downward trend began with a 79-62 loss at South Carolina on Jan. 23. Kentucky bounced back to defeat Arkansas on the road (63-57) but have lost the past two games by a combined score of 197-183.

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Kentucky coach John Calipari remained upbeat despite the two setbacks that will send the Wildcats out of the Top 10 and into the bottom tier of ranked teams.

“We’re still one of those teams,” he said. “We’ve lost two games to teams that played well and deserved to beat us.”

For the first time this year the Volunteers (16-5, 6-2 SEC) reached the century mark, the first time an opposing team has scored more than 100 points against the Wildcats at Rupp Arena in more than three decades. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes wasn’t surprised by his team’s offensive outburst against the Wildcats.

“Kentucky’s lethal when they get out and run and they get down the floor, they really attack … let’s talk about our speed,” Barnes said. “We play fast. That’s what we talk about. We we play fast and and so I knew it was going to be a high-possession game.”

The Volunteers overcame a huge performance by Kentucky’s Rob Dillingham, who scored a career-high 35 points. Dillingham scored 17 of those in the opening half after Tennessee scored the first eight points and raced out to a 13-3 lead.

Behind Dillingham, the Wildcats fought back and trailed 46-42 at the break.

“At halftime I was amazed that we had a chance,” Calipari said. “I watched a lot of tape and I’ve got to give Tennessee credit. They played and they made shots.”

Barnes wasn’t surprised by Dillingham’s showing against his squad. Dillingham scored 18 points in the second half before fouling out down the stretch.

“I thought up until tonight I was the best player to ever come out of Hickory, but I got blown up tonight,” the Tennessee coach said. “Dillingham was phenomenal. He was phenomenal.”

For the second straight game, the Wildcats were without guard D.J. Wagner, who sat out because of an ankle injury. Reed Sheppard made his second start and finished with 16 points, five rebounds and six assists.

Kentucky had numerous breakdowns on defense and surrendered 18 offensive rebounds, resulting in 22 second-chance opportunities for the Volunteers. Calipari said the breakdowns, especially five out-of-bounds plays, were costly.

“Three plays hurt us out-of-bounds — three plays and two out-of-bounds,” he said. “When you don’t have the right guy on the ball, that stuff happens.”

Despite the recent struggles, Calipari remains hopeful for a turnaround going into the final six weeks of the regular season.

“The kids fought and I haven’t lost anything,” he said. “We still don’t have D.J. (Wagner) and teams are playing good against (us). Our goals are still there and I have a good team. We’re young and we still make some errors, but, we’ve got to get healthy.”