LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) —This time Kentucky and Tennessee played it the way you expected them to play it.
Not the Wildcats by 17 the way it was when the Wildcats and Volunteers played in Lexington last month.
Not the Vols by 19 the way it was in Knoxville two weeks ago.
This time it was 40 minutes of punch, counter-punch. This time it was adjust, re-adjust.
Tennessee made the final, and most critical adjustments, pounding the ball to Grant Williams and switching to a 1-3-1 zone on defense. The Vols rallied from an eight-point deficit in the final three minutes to beat Kentucky, 82-78.
This time it was the way it was supposed to be for a pair of teams determined to prove they’re the best team in the Southeastern Conference and deserving of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The No. 1 seed talk likely ended for the Wildcats. Minutes after the game, ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi had Kentucky as his third No. 2 seed behind Michigan State and Tennessee.
Lunardi's four No. 1 seeds were Virginia, Duke, North Carolina and Gonzaga.
Kentucky held at No. 8, one spot behind Tennessee, in Ken Pomeroy's computer power ratings.
In a game that neither team led by more than five points for nearly 34 minutes, Kentucky finally jumped ahead of Tennessee by eight in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville Saturday afternoon.
But over the final 3 minutes, the Wildcats’ defense disappeared. They let the Volunteers score on eight straight possessions.
Rick Barnes switched his team to a 1-3-1 zone. John Calipari’s team looked just as confused against that zone as the Wildcats’ John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins’ squad looked against the 1-3-1 when Bob Huggins broke that zone out for West Virginia in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
The Volunteers outscored Kentucky 18-6 down the stretch. The knockout shot was a three-pointer by Lamonte Turner with about 30 seconds to play. It was the first shot from distance Turner made against Kentucky in 15 attempts this season. Until that shot, Tennessee was 2 for 11 from behind the arc in the second half.
The Volunteers upgraded their case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — and they earned a chance to win their first SEC Tournament since 1979 on Sunday against Auburn.
Calipari’s five starters scored double figures. UK was led by P.J. Washington, who had 16. Guard Ashton Hagans had 10 points and 12 assists.
Kentucky had to deal with foul trouble from the Wildcats’ best player — Washington. Two whistles limited him to six minutes and two points in the first half.
Kentucky survived that, in part, because of the adversity that the Wildcats had to endured when they were without Reid Travis for more than three weeks at the end of the season because of Travis’ knee injury.
When Travis sat, Nick Richards and E. J. Montgomery played. So when Washington sat on Saturday against the Vols, Montgomery and Richards played and delivered. Credit Montgomery with eight points, Richards with six.
The whistle worked against Tennessee in the second half. Rick Barnes’ team was called for three fouls in the first 68 seconds.
The SEC Tournament championship game will be played Sunday at 1 p.m.
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