By LARRY VAUGHT
Let’s blame Joe Lunardi.
The ESPN bracketologist moved Kentucky to a projected No. 2 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament and obviously the Cats wanted no part of that.
Or maybe blame Tennessee coach Rick Barnes for suggesting Monday that the two best teams in the country were No. 1 Kansas and Kentucky.
Or maybe, just maybe, blame Kentucky for a dismal lack of effort most of the second half after building a 17-point lead and thinking it could just cost to a win over Tennessee.
Instead, the Cats collapsed and lost 81-73 to the same team they beat in Knoxville last month.
Kentucky went 9-for-27 from the field the second half and scored 31 points but gave up FIFTY POINTS to the Vols. The Cats made Tennessee center John Fulkerson look like a potential No. 1 overall NBA draft pick as he had a career-high 27 points on 10-for-15 shooting along with six rebounds and two assists. More importantly, he just outworked and outhustled the Cats.
“What do you say about that? He played his butt off. He had a great game,” Kentucky associate coach Kenny Payne said on the UK Radio Network.
He was right — and he didn’t mince words about UK’s lack of effort. He pointed to Tennessee hitting 52.8 percent from the field — only the third time a team has shot 50 percent or better against UK this year — and 44 percent from 3-point range as a recipe for disaster.
But Payne didn’t hide this loss was about more than numbers.
“They competed better than us. Hopefully this is a wake-u call. Lot of the guys on the court that got outplayed,” Payne said. “One thing here at Kentucky is that every game is a war. Anybody can beat anybody on a given night. Tennessee a really good team and just as good as anybody in this league.”
So what could Kentucky have done better?
“Competed, fight. This game has a lot to do with confidence and mentality, not just technique,” Payne said.
The UK assistant talked about “not competing” and taking too much for granted and not matching Tennessee’s effort.
“That’s what happened on our home court,” Payne said.
Many UK fans wondered why center Nick Richards, who drew 10 fouls, got just five shots. But Payne would have no part of saying Richards should have got the ball more.
“He is one of those non-competes tonight for me,” Payne said. “Did not post hard enough, let guys beat him to spots. Just didn’t compete. Little disappointed because that’s what we have to hang our hat on and we didn’t.”
Don’t think Payne was blaming Richards solely for UK’s eight-game wining streak coming to an end. There was plenty of blame to go around. Immanuel Quickley was 5-for-16 from the field and had four turnovers. Ashton Hagans got in foul trouble and had three turnovers and just one rebound. EJ Montgomery had just two points. Tryese Maxey had 21 points but failed to block out at times and didn’t have a rebound.
So what does Payne hopes the Cats learned from this defeat in the next to last regular-season game?
“First of all I think the biggest thing is you don’t have to play great but you have to fight. From the time that whistle starts to the time it ends you have to fight,” Payne said. “A lot of times we put so much emphasis on strategy. You win and lose off your will to win, your fight, your determination and guys playing together for one common goal and that’s to win.”
And the last 15 minutes of this game, Kentucky didn’t have any of that.