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Earlier-season loss to Vols a moment of growth for Cats, who seek better outcome in rematch

By Keith Taylor
Special to NKyTribune

Although Tennessee handed Kentucky its first Southeastern Conference setback of the season last month, it turned out to be a learning experience.

At the time, the Wildcats (20-5, 10-2 Southeastern Conference) were on a roll and had won their first seven conference games following a 73-70 loss to instate foe Louisville. The Volunteers not only ended Kentucky’s seven-game winning streak, but exposed the team’s weaknesses in an 82-80 victory over the Wildcats, the first of three setbacks in a four-game span for Kentucky.

Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe goes up for a shot in a loss at Tennessee earlier this year. The two teams meet again Tuesday night at Rupp Arena (Keith Taylor Photo)

“That was a moment of growth for us,” Kentucky senior Mychal Mulder said. “Something we learned from and some experience for us. I feel like we’re ready this time around.”

Mulder didn’t make the trip to Knoxville because of an undisclosed illness, but recalled watching the game on television in a helpless state of mind. Mulder admitted “it’s different watching it when you’re not there” but added the Wildcats were rushing shots and experiencing breakdowns on defense.

“I was a little frustrated (and) I just felt how all these guys were feeling,” he said Monday. “Feeling like we could have played so much better. But we’re really not focused on that game anymore. That’s not really who we are. We know that. So we’re focused on what’s coming up next.”

Kentucky will get a rematch against the Volunteers in a Valentine’s Day contest between the two border rivals Tuesday night at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats bring a two-game winning streak into the contest and are coming off a 67-58 win over Alabama.

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Although the Wildcats appear to have recovered from a mild February slump, Kentucky coach John Calipari is still trying to figure out why the Wildcats are blowing big leads in the second half.

“I’m spending time right now watching tape on when we’re up 18, 20, 25, 16, that we give back those points,” he said. “I spent (Sunday) breaking all that down and coming up with ideas, because they’re not gonna fix stuff on their own. It’s not what they do. “

Although defense is the main point of emphasis for Calipari and his staff, the Kentucky coach stressed the issues go beyond the defensive end of the floor. Calipari added the trouble spots are more “technical than mental” and said the players need to have a plan of attack when building a double-digit lead.

“It’s not just defense,” he said. “It’s both sides of the ball. We’ll get better.”

Caliapri admitted that overcoming the shortcomings isn’t an easy fix, but likes the way the team has responded to adversity, especially in a grinding win over the Crimson Tide.

“It took us three weeks to get where we were,” Calipari said. “It’s not happening overnight. I don’t want them to get away (from learning and improving). Let’s put it this way — they went from one-shot, no-shot, to probably a little bit too much grind out against Alabama. We gotta be somewhere in the middle. But they proved they can play that way if they had to, which is good.”

Like Kentucky, Tennessee has had its share of issues and have compiled a 3-2 mark since defeating the Wildcats at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Volunteers won two in a row after the win over Kentucky, but have lost two of their past three games, including a 76-75 loss to Georgia at home last weekend.

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said the Volunteers face a different set of circumstances going into Tuesday’s encounter against the Wildcats.

“When we won here we were coming off a good win against Mississippi State and we were at home,” he said. “Now we’re coming off a tough loss and we’re on the road. So our mindset is really important, being able to get on to the next game.”

Despite the Vols’ recent slide, Calipari expects a close encounter the second time around.

“They’re good,” Calipari said. “I watched the Georgia game and they should’ve won that game, too. I mean, they’re running they’re stuff. They’re a matchup problem for everybody. Rick (Barnes) is doing an unbelievable job, which he always does, getting his teams ready to battle and play. Whether you play man or zone, he’s got a good answer.”

Gametracker: Tennessee at Kentucky, Tuesday, 7 p.m. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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