By LARRY VAUGHT
NASHVILLE — Kentucky had the game right where it wanted with a 72-64 lead over Tennessee with less than three remaining in the SEC Tournament semifinals here Saturday.
Instead, Tennessee rode the play of Grant Williams to a miraculous rally to beat Kentucky 82-78. The Vols hit four of their final five shots and scored 18 points in the final 2 minutes, 45 seconds to beat UK for the second time in three tries this season.
“With an eight-point lead we should win that game but they (Tennessee) said they were not stopping. You’ve got to give them credit,” Kentucky coach John Calipari.
Kentucky had five players in double digits — led by PJ Washington’s 16 — but made two costly turnovers in the final minutes. Tyler Herro was called for a walk and then Keldon Johnson was called for having the ball out of bounds. If that wasn’t enough, Reid Travis also fouled out on a Grant Williams spin move that turned into a 3-point play that cut the lead to 72-69 after the Herro walk. Thirteen seconds earlier he made two free throws — he was 9-for-11 at the line and had 20 points.
After Washington dunk, Admiral Schofield buried an open 3 for the Vols and then came Johnson’s turnover followed by a rare Williams’ 3-pointer to give Tennessee the lead with 126 to play. Washington got the lead back for UK by following his own miss but Williams — who else — got an offensive rebound for the Vols that led to a dagger 3 by Lamonte Turner and the Vols put the game away at the foul line.
“We had our chances. We had a lead late and we usually don’t give up those kind of games,” Calipari said. “A couple of things go against you and they took advantage, which they have done all year, and they win the game. Just got to watch the tape. All we had to do was rebound that last ball (when Williams got Schofield’s miss).”
“It was great,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I walked down the hallway and one of my coaches said it was the greatest game he was ever involved in. It was a great game because two teams were going at each other. It’s what you would expect from two teams that had great years.”
Both will get to continue those great years in the NCAA Tournament after Tennessee plays Auburn for the SEC Tournament title (the Vols have not won a SEC tourney since 1979) on Sunday.
A win would have put UK in great position to have been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA. Calipari said he didn’t know if his team still would be but said at worst UK should be the top No. 2 seed.
“We play next weekend, so we are fine,” Washington said. “Down the stretch we made some mistakes.”
He said he told younger teammates they have to “keep fighting” despite the loss.
“We have still got a bigger tournament. Got to be focused whoever we play (in the NCAA),” Washington said.