LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky players hope to make Tuesday night’s last-second overtime loss at Arkansas a memory with a win Saturday against Tennessee.
Coach John Calipari found some positives in the close loss to the Razorbacks despite communications breakdowns by the No. 13 Wildcats (12-4, 2-1 Southeastern Conference). While Kentucky’s last miscue — allowing Michael Qualls to grab a rebound and slam home the game-winning basket — cost the Wildcats the game, Calipari wants his team to learn from it and move on.
Facing rival Tennessee (11-5, 2-1) provides some incentive for Kentucky, which got shellacked 88-58 by the Volunteers last February in Knoxville. That rout was the Wildcats’ first game without injured forward Nerlens Noel.
Kentucky also should have some extra motivation knowing it’s this season’s only scheduled meeting against the Volunteers.
“We’re just worried about getting better,” Calipari said Friday. “I said, ‘when are we going to know whether we won or lost, and they said Saturday after the game,’ so don’t worry about it. Let’s just prepare to play great, and they’re not worried about all that. Let’s just get better.”
The coach said his team had “seven errors of miscommunication” leading to easy baskets by Arkansas, which won despite shooting 38 percent and being outrebounded 50-32 by Kentucky. Calipari also took issue with several calls against the Wildcats but has stressed to players the importance of playing on and not worrying about the officials.
Though freshman James Young took the blame for not blocking out Qualls on his offensive rebound and thunderous two-handed slam with .2 seconds left, Calipari said everybody assumed some responsibility for the 87-85 loss.
“We just tried to keep our heads up,” said sophomore forward Alex Poythress, whose 12 points and six rebounds kept Kentucky in the game. “We played hard, we played great, it’s just sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce our way.”
The Wildcats’ mission is putting it behind them and preventing a repeat performance by boxing out and making sure every Volunteer is accounted for.
“We’ve been more focused and have gone after each other, trying to get better to make sure that never happens,” freshman forward Marcus Lee said.
Playing the Volunteers should help keep the Wildcats’ attention.
Starting over days after Noel’s season-ending knee injury, Kentucky got drilled for Tennessee’s most lopsided victory in the series. The Wildcats went .500 down the stretch and were left playing in the NIT, but Poythress said the loss matured him and teammates.
They can’t wait to show how much on Saturday.
“We owe them one,” he said. “We got a new team and just want to look at it as a different game.”
Tennessee is coming off Wednesday’s 78-67 victory over Auburn, in which it shot 51 percent and made 20 of 25 from the line. The Vols hope to improve their league-worst minus-7.5 turnover margin in SEC play.
Doing so will require tuning out a Rupp Arena crowd that aims to boost the Wildcats after a tough loss.
“It’s fun playing in a hostile environment,” Vols leading scorer Jordan McRae (18.4 points per game) said. “It’s only fun if you win, but it’s still fun.
“They’re the usual Kentucky team. They’re going to be tough to beat at home, but I think we can manage.”