By Mark Nagi
A couple of weeks ago in this column I wrote about the Tennessee/Florida rivalry, and how it continues to burn very hot.
The nice thing about sports is that there isn’t just one rival. In men’s basketball, it doesn’t get more intense than Tennessee and Kentucky.
Maybe it’s the distance. Knoxville and Lexington are separated by approximately 170 miles. It’s a quick three-hour trek down I-75.
Maybe it’s the familiarity. These teams have played 234 times, with the Wildcats holding a 157-77 advantage.
Or maybe it’s just that the Vols and Wildcats simply don’t like each other.
With all that in mind, last week I ventured to Thompson-Boling Arena for the latest edition of this rock fight. A capacity crowd had their tickets scanned and were loud and rowdy from the jump.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari has been Public Enemy Number One since his days running the show at Memphis, and not much has changed since then. He received some of the loudest boos of the night when he walked onto the floor for the first time. Some of the loudest cheers occurred when Calipari received an early technical foul.
Nearly seven minutes into the game, a fracas occurred at the Kentucky bench. Tennessee’s John Fulkerson fell out of the bounds and when Santiago Vescovi went over the help him up, the Kentucky strength coach stepped in his way. Vols guard Zakai Zeigler gave the strength coach a small shove and it was on.
Not that the game needed a spark, but it had one.
When the dustup happened, UK was ahead 17-15. Tennessee would score 17 of the next 18 points and led 32-18.
Tennessee led by 14 points at the half. Kentucky cut the lead to 8 points a couple of times in the second half but could get no closer.
The crowd was into the game throughout the night. The most popular chant from the student section? “Just like football… Clap. Clap. Clap clap clap.”
Back in January, Tennessee was manhandled by Kentucky, 107-79. This time around, revenge was sweet with a 76-63 victory in front of their adoring fans.
“This game was personal,” said Tennessee guard Kennedy Chandler. “We came out in Lexington, and we didn’t play our best. I felt like this second time, we played like the team we are. We were capable of being a better team than we were when we played up there. I feel like they took us for granted. We came out and we didn’t let up. What Coach Barnes and I were saying the whole time was, ‘Just don’t let up and keep it going. Never give up’. We just kept pushing. They made their runs, and they didn’t give up. They made their runs, but we had to finish out strong.”
“This building, I’m partial, but I think it’s the best,” said Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes, who is now 9-7 against Calipari and Kentucky. “I mean, everybody talks about the blue bloods, I mean the orange bloods are right there. Our fans, I mean tonight it was special, but there’s a lot of games this year where our fans have just been spectacular. Our players feed off of it, there’s no question about that, absolutely they love it, they appreciate the support.”
It’s possible that these teams will play again this season, maybe at the SEC tournament in Tampa next month.
That would be all sorts of fun, wouldn’t it?