LEXINGTON (AP) — Kyle Wiltjer was feeling so good about his shot Tuesday night that the Kentucky forward went over to John Calipari and asked the Wildcats coach to run some plays through him.
Calipari obliged a couple of times and Wiltjer had all the confidence he needed after going scoreless in his previous outing. He rebounded by scoring 17 points, including five down the stretch, and Kentucky avoided back-to-back Southeastern Conference losses by beating Tennessee 75-65.
“For the first time since he’s been here he told me to run a play for him, which I absolutely did,” Calipari said. “He even came back after he made (his first 3-pointer) and said run another play for him, and we did. But then we came back on the third one and I said, ‘Cool out, man, let somebody else try to shoot it.”
Wiltjer had been blanked Texas A&M last Saturday in an 83-71 home loss.
“We put in a couple of new plays in practice, so I knew they were there and was just confident in myself and looked over there and just ran it,” said Wiltjer, who finished 6 of 10 from the field, including two 3-pointers. He also had five rebounds and two blocks.
On his final points, Wiltjer added, “I just had to keep being aggressive and attacking the basket to help our team win.”
Aggression was the theme of a game between the longtime rivals who had to work hard for everything. Kentucky ultimately came out ahead, bouncing back from Saturday’s loss to the Aggies and being satisfied with a close win that featured nine ties and 12 lead changes.
Nerlens Noel and Ryan Harrow each added 12 points and Alex Poythress 10 while Julius Mays contributed consecutive 3-pointers 1:48 apart late in the game to help the Wildcats (11-5, 2-1). In fact, all but Jarrod Polson scored, but Calipari credited his defense for helping swing the momentum toward Kentucky.
“It was a good win for us,” Calipari said. “I came to this conclusion: in the last seven, eight years I have coached teams that have absolutely whomped on people, and this ain’t one of them. Every game, we are going to be in a dogfight and instead of going crazy about it, how about just accept it and coach that way.”
Noel, meanwhile, turned in his second straight all-around effort to help Kentucky beat Tennessee for the sixth straight time. After recording 15 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks, six assists and four steals against Texas A&M, Noel followed up with nine rebounds, six blocks and four steals to make the difference for the Wildcats in a seesaw game.
“In the first half, I was a little off-pace and rushing some things, not staying focused,” Noel said. “But I think in the second half I brought it back to life. I did what I had to do for my team.”
Jordan McRae’s 23 points led Tennessee (8-7), which lost its fourth straight and is 0-3 in the SEC for the first time in 15 years. But there was a lot for Volunteers coach Cuonzo Martin to feel encouraged about.
Tennessee didn’t blink despite trailing twice by eight in the second half. Trailing 47-39, the Volunteers even went on a 15-6 run for a 54-53 lead with 7:19 remaining.
Kentucky outscored Tennessee 11-4 over the next 3 minutes, with Mays (nine points) dropping back-to-back 3-pointers for a 64-58 lead with 4:20 left. Wiltjer scored the next five points to give the Wildcats a 69-62 lead with 1:37 left.
“They did a good job of making plays,” Martin said of Kentucky. “I thought our guys put ourselves in position but just didn’t capitalize. But I thought we were aggressive and continued to attack the rim.”
The Wildcats eventually won it with 13-of-20 shooting in the second half (65 percent) to finish 49 percent (25 of 51) overall. Defensively, Kentucky held Tennessee to 11 of 29 shooting (38 percent) in the second half and 46 percent (25 of 54) overall.
Though the Volunteers didn’t get the jump on the Wildcats they hoped, they got an early edge in a back-and-forth game. McRae helped get Tennessee going inside and outside, lofting one shot over the 6-foot-10 Noel along with a layup while adding a couple of jumpers to provide a 19-17 lead.
That created some anxiety from the Rupp Arena crowd of 24,033, but Wiltjer’s shooting, especially from beyond the arc, helped Kentucky rally for the lead. That was significant after Saturday’s drought against Texas A&M and especially since he came out firing, hitting 4 of 6 from the field, including two from beyond the arc.
Wiltjer finished the first half with a team-high 10 points, including five during an 8-0 run for a 25-19 Kentucky lead. Tennessee answered to briefly lead twice more late in the half before Archie Goodwin scored the Wildcats’ final six points on four free throws and a floater for a 34-31 halftime lead.
Kentucky started the second half with an 11-6 run for its biggest lead at 45-37, but Tennessee’s 10-2 run, including McRae’s two baskets, tied the game. The Wildcats outscored the Vols 28-18 after that.
“I think we fought hard the whole game,” McRae said, “but the last three games there are key plays that we have to make down the stretch and I don’t think we have.”