Vols blow out ’Cats, get glimpse of what can be
By Grant Ramey | (email@example.com)
Kentucky usually brings out the best in Tennessee on the basketball court. Saturday the Wildcats brought out the best of Vols’ best.
It wasn’t the play of Jarnell Stokes bruising around in the post playing the catalyst in Tennessee’s recrod-setting blowout of John Calipari and No. 25 Kentucky Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Instead, it was the return of a game-changing point guard that Cuonzo Martin has been looking for.
Trae Golden needed just 29 minutes of floor time and eight field goal attempts to score 24 points, record eight assists and not commit a single turnover in Tennessee’s 30-point dismantling of Kentucky. Stokes still did what he’s done of late, though falling just short of a seventh-straight double-double with 9 points, nine rebounds and a pair of blocks in and efficient 20 minutes handicapped by foul trouble.
But Golden provided plenty in the over-before-it-started 88-58 thumping.
“Whenever your point guard is playing good it just makes everyone better,” Stokes said. “If Trae played like that every game then we should win every game.”
But Golden hasn’t played every game like that. Tennessee’s record — 14-10 overall and now 6-6 in the Southeastern Conference — is written proof.
A tweaked hamstring slowed him down earlier this month, but before that it was a slump Martin couldn’t explain that had Golden and the Vols struggling to find rhythm.
“I think that Trae has sort of struggled this year,” Stokes added. “I am glad to see that he looks rejuvenated right now.”
So was Saturday afternoon’s capacity crowd of 21,678, rejuvanted by Golden’s rejuvination.
“The stretch he was going through, whatever it was, I have no clue, we were trying to figure out everything,” Martin said of Golden’s slump, “physically, mentally, anything you can think of.
“That was not they guy who finished for you last season.”
With Golden back to looking like the guy that finished last season, Tennessee — a team that earlier this season lost back-to-back road games where it scored under 40 points — set a season-high with 50 first-half points. Going back further, it’s the most since 2007.
The Vols shot 57 percent from the field in the first half, 80 percent from the free throw line and a perfect 100 percent on their four 3-point attempts.
Tennessee out-rebounded Kentucky 21-13, turned the Wildcats over 10 times while committing just five, and scored 20 points off first-half turnovers. The Vols had 4 fast-break points. The Wildcats had zero.
Tennessee had 10 assist — six from Golden alone — to Kentucky’s three.
And that was all in the 50-point first half that built a 24-point lead — Tennessee’s biggest advantage at the break since January of ‘99, when it was Tennessee 50, LSU 18.
With that lead, and those stats, the second half was mop-up duty.
“This is sports and sometimes it happens,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They deserved to beat us by 50 points today.
“They played harder, they played rougher and they executed better.”
It wasn’t quite 50, but the 30-point win was the biggest for the Vols in the history of the Tennessee-Kentucky series — and the most since Lyndon B. Johnson was in office, in January of ‘68.
From 1910 to Saturday, it’s been played 216 times. Saturday was Tennessee’s biggest.
“To me personally it means a lot,” Golden said. “I think it means even more to Tennessee. I haven’t beat Kentucky since I have been in college so it is just a great win for us.”
A great win for the Vols, who saw what the ceiling can be for a team firing on all cylinders.
A horrible loss for Kentucky, which started life without Nerlens Noel, one of the most dominant shot blockers in college basketball, who was lost to a torn ACL earlier this week.
“I’ll burn the tape from this one,” Calipari said. “I won’t watch it. I had to sit through it, so I’m not going to sit through it again.”
Calipari won’t watch it again. But Martin and the suddenly-rolling Vols need to see it again to stay hot before No. 7 Florida comes to town on Feb. 26 for a nationally-televised 9 p.m. tip off.
“We didn’t lose games because of those guys and that’s not to put pressure on them,” Martin said of the likes of Golden, before putting it into perspective from his playing days. “I know when I was a player at Purdue University, if Glenn Robinson didn’t play well, chances are, Purdue didn’t win that night.
“Your best players have to be what they are.”
Tennessee got a glimpse of that Saturday.
Grant Ramey is a sports writer at The Daily Times. He can be reached at grantr@thedailytimes.