Commentary

Cats irked with Vols for 'offense' before upset win

Originally Published: January 23, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Disrespect was in the Rupp Arena air before tip-off Tuesday night. And the Kentucky Wildcats were not pleased.

According to the Cats, the Tennessee Volunteers barked back and forth with fans when they came out to shoot before the game. And the Vols committed the hoops etiquette faux pas of wearing their earrings on the court during warm-ups, too.

Earrings can't be worn during games, but who knew the pregame bling was such a tacky thing? Well, the Cats knew. To them, it was a clear sign that Tennessee, from the lobes down, was not locked in, not taking this assignment seriously.

"They're a really good team, they've been winning a lot of games," Kentucky point guard Ramel Bradley said. "It's their job to be confident that they're going to win every single game. But you're supposed to show some kind of class. When we see those kinds of things, we take offense to it."

Said forward Perry Stevenson: "We saw it, but we didn't want to say anything. You've got to be kind of cocky going into somebody else's place. But Rupp Arena's kind of magical."

That seemed to be the Big Blue bottom line Tuesday night, and perhaps for every home night during this Southeastern Conference season. Kentucky upset the Vols 72-66 and sent the following message: We may be down, but don't disrespect us in a building that has seen more glory than Tennessee could muster in six lifetimes.

And so the Volunteers received the same dose of humility recently injected into North Carolina, UCLA, Texas A&M, Pittsburgh, Marquette and everyone else not named Kansas or Memphis. Even if you bring it, you might get beat. If you don't bring it, you'll almost certainly get beat.

Tennessee's 11-game winning streak -- which tied its longest in the past 30 years -- apparently was just enough to make human nature take hold. When young people win that much, they start to believe their own hype, which won't sit well with coach Bruce Pearl.

Pearl has quickly built this program upon a foundation of sweat equity, maximum effort and selfless teamwork. He also has a healthy respect for tradition. Combine subpar effort with the legendary gym where it happened, and you have a disappointed coach.

"I feel badly," Pearl said. "I've got such great respect for this building and those fans."

Last year, Tennessee lost in Rupp by 19 points without All-American Chris Lofton, who was injured. Pearl felt better about that performance than this one.

"That game, we represented," Pearl said. "We represented with the way we played. And I don't think we did tonight."

What Tennessee represented was the frailty that threatens every college team -- heck, even every pro team. Nobody is good enough to mail it in during conference play.

Maysville, Ky., native Chris Lofton became the SEC's leading career 3-point shooter in this game, hitting five on the night and 367 in his sensational four years in Knoxville. But he went 19 minutes and 47 seconds of the second half without a 3 as the Vols lost the lead, and Pearl faulted his efforts to get open.

[+] EnlargeChris Lofton
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeKentucky native Chris Lofton hit five 3s to set the SEC record for career 3s with 367, but it wasn't enough.

For Lofton to break the record in the home gym of the school that didn't recruit him was poetic justice. But on the night, he was outplayed by Bradley -- one of the guards Kentucky recruited instead of Lofton, which was a poetic turn for the New Yorker who has heard endless talk about him being a recruiting mistake.

The bigger problem for Tennessee was the play of its big men, Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism, and the Vols' inability to get them the ball in scoring position late in the game. The two were a combined 5-of-17 from the field and settled for way too many perimeter shots -- they were 1-for-5 from 3-point range. Meanwhile, Kentucky's inside tandem of Stevenson and Patrick Patterson combined for 34 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocked shots.

In the Vols' other loss, to Texas, the big men also misfired and were outplayed. Chism and Smith were a combined 7-for-22, for 18 points -- less than the Longhorns' Connor Atchley had by himself (22 points and 11 boards).

Clearly, getting banger Duke Crews back from a heart ailment will help Tennessee immensely. His return is expected soon.

Performances like the ones the Vols got from their key players will kill an 11-game winning streak. Especially when 23,443 fans, thrust into an unfamiliar underdog role and dying for something to cheer about, are waiting for you.

"Best sixth man in the history of college basketball," said Billy Gillispie, who now has his first truly significant win in his first season coaching the Wildcats.

Beating then-No. 13 Vanderbilt on Jan. 12 was nice, but Vandy was a bit overrated and ready for a comeuppance. Beating a Tennessee team that has surpassed the Cats the past two years in the SEC pecking order? That's another matter.

Kentucky now is 2-0 at home in SEC play, upsetting then-No. 13 Vanderbilt Jan. 12 and now shocking the third-ranked Vols. In between were contentious road losses to Mississippi State and Florida, where Kentucky refused to submit. A 2-2 league record has rarely looked so good, given the nonconference debacle that preceded it.

The Cats (8-9 overall) are still a long shot to make the NCAA Tournament. But don't be surprised if they hold serve at home the rest of the way -- which would be a dramatic improvement from the days of humiliating Rupp losses to Gardner-Webb and San Diego.

"These guys have figured it out," Gillispie said. "It's a 40-minute game. They're going to play as hard as they possibly can."

With guards Jodie Meeks and Derrick Jasper now healthy enough to at least grit their way through half a game, Gillispie has five quality players. The other three -- seniors Bradley and Joe Crawford and freshman Patterson -- will simply have to play like machines the rest of the way.

Bradley played 39 minutes on Tuesday night -- the minute off being his first in Kentucky's past 215 minutes of play. He'd gone every second of the previous four games, including three overtime periods.

Patterson went 39 minutes as well against Tennessee, and he has averaged 42.3 minutes in the four SEC games. His 20 points and eight rebounds made him the star of this show.

"He's a force," Gillispie said of his star freshman. "Nothing affects that guy."

Nothing had affected Tennessee for 11 impressive games. But in college basketball, streaks like that are destined to be broken -- especially if you come into a place like Rupp Arena talking trash and wearing your earrings.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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