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January 15, 2013

Kentucky finishes strong to close out Tennessee 75-65

You can call them beatdowns. You can go with shellackings or thumpings or pummelings.

Whatever your word of choice for lopsided losses, John Calipari's basketball teams have been adept at doling them out in recent years.

"I came to this conclusion," Calipari said Tuesday, after his Wildcats pulled away late to beat Tennessee 75-65 at Rupp Arena. "In the last seven or eight years, I have coached teams that have absolutely whomped on people. And this ain't one of 'em."

Every game, Calipari said, "is going to be a dogfight" for Kentucky (11-5, 2-1 Southeastern Conference), which early this season looks like an NCAA Tournament bubble team.

But there was at least some fight in the dogs on Tuesday.

Tennessee (8-7, 0-3) hung tough for most of the night. The Volunteers tied the game 56-56 with 6:27 to play on a pair of Derek Reese free throws, and suddenly Kentucky found itself in just the sort of gut-check game it lost last Saturday to Texas A&M.

Against the Aggies, the Cats wilted.

Against the Vols, they Wiltjered.

Kyle Wiltjer scored five of his 17 points in those closing minutes - none from behind the three-point line - and the Cats got two clutch three-pointers from Julius Mays got distance late.

"For the last couple weeks, Coach Cal's been really going back to something he calls 'gut time,' when it's really in crunch time of the game," said freshman Nerlens Noel, who had 12 points, nine rebounds, six blocked shots and four steals. "We really got to execute - not for ourselves but for the team - so we don't break down and make mental mistakes."

Against Tennessee, the Cats were (mostly) at their best at "gut time."

There was a brief flirtation with the kind of late-game execution that did in Kentucky against Texas A&M - notably, a turnover in the final minute on which Mays was hit with a flagrant foul for swinging an elbow - but Tennessee didn't take advantage.

The Cats scored on eight of their final nine possessions, including one string of six straight.

"We made some strides today, but we have a ways to go, believe me," Calipari said. "You know, this is the thing about coaching 17-, 18- and 19-year olds."

Those young players saw a challenge in Calipari's lament that they're unable to beat a team badly. Wiltjer said UK "can use that as motivation and try to just really stomp on people."

And Noel expressed confidence that Kentucky eventually will be the sort of team that can finish foes late, saying "It's going to happen."

"To get into the stage where we're really beating teams by 20 or 30, it's not right now," Noel said. "We're just going to be patient and keep working toward that time."

Tuesday was a mixed bag in that regard.

Kentucky had its struggles defensively - Tennessee shot 56 percent in the first half, and Jordan McRae scored 23 points - and squandered chances to pull away early in the second half, letting an eight-point lead slip away.

"I think we just kill ourselves sometimes," said freshman Alex Poythress, who had 10 points and eight rebounds. "We make our own mistakes. We're not tight, we'll turn the ball, we just don't know how to demolish a team. We'll be up 10 or 12 and just let a team come back. It's something we gotta learn and I think we'll do it."

Calipari isn't so sure. He reminded his team after the game that he's spent "the last eight years winning 35 games a year, beating people by 30."

"Well, this team is not capable of doing that," Calipari said. "We are still learning to sustain effort and to trust each other. Then you can start becoming the team we want to be. Until then, we're going to be mired in this stuff we're in right now."


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