Former McEachern High School star Trae Golden scored 24 points and had eight assists without a turnover Saturday as Tennessee rolled to an 88-58 victory over Kentucky, giving the Volunteers their most lopsided win in the 216-game history of this series.
“They deserved to beat us by 50 (Saturday),” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They played harder. They played rougher. They executed better. They were stronger with the ball. We just had passive guys who did not want to make plays. (We were) tentative.”
Kentucky (17-8, 8-4 Southeastern Conference) was playing its first game without Noel, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Tuesday during a 69-52 loss to No. 7 Florida. The 6-foot-10 freshman was leading the nation in blocks (4.4), was tied for the SEC lead in rebounds (9.5) and ranked fourth in the SEC in steals (2.1).
The Wildcats weren’t the same without him.
A Tennessee offense that has struggled for much of the season often scored at will against a Kentucky team that entered the day ranked second in the SEC in field-goal percentage defense (.382). Tennessee shot 58 percent from the field and outrebounded Kentucky 39-21.
Tennessee (14-10, 6-6) entered the day ranked 13th out of 14 SEC teams in 3-point percentage (.286), but the Vols made all five of their 3-point attempts Saturday.
“The way we played today, I don’t think there’s too many teams we would have lost to,” said Tennessee guard Jordan McRae, who scored 15 points. “I think If they had still had (Noel), we would have won. You can’t prove that, so it is what it is.”
Tennessee won its third straight game overall and ended a six-game losing streak in this rivalry.
The Wildcats still lead the all-time series 149-67, though no program in the nation has more victories over Kentucky than Tennessee. Before Saturday, Tennessee’s most one-sided victory over Kentucky was an 87-59 triumph on Jan. 22, 1968.
The Vols also have won the last five times they have hosted a defending national champion, including a 60-57 victory over Connecticut last season.
“It means a lot (to me), and I think it means even more to Tennessee,” Golden said. “I hadn’t beaten Kentucky since I’ve been in college, so it’s just a great win for us.”
Kyle Wiltjer scored 18 points, Julius Mays had 12 points and Jarrod Polson had a career-high 11 for Kentucky. Wiltjer and Polson replaced Alex Poythress and Ryan Harrow in Kentucky’s starting lineup Saturday, while 7-foot freshman Willie Cauley-Stein took Noel’s place. Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Harrow, a Walton High product, all fouled out.
Kentucky’s biggest problem Saturday without Noel was expected to be trying to slow down Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, who entered the day with six straight double-doubles. Stokes battled foul trouble for much of the day and ended up with nine points and nine rebounds.
Instead, Stokes’ teammates did most of the damage in front of a sellout crowd of 21,678 that included Milwaukee Bucks forward and former Vols star Tobias Harris as well as ex-Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer. Harris joined the student section in performing the Harlem Shake during one timeout, while Fulmer appeared on the scoreboard “kiss cam” during another break in the action.
Golden, who had been slumping for much of the year, continued his late-season surge and was just one point off his career high in scoring. Hall, who hadn’t even played Wednesday in a 58-46 victory at Vanderbilt, also reached double figures. Skylar McBee had been shooting just 31.5 percent from 3-point range this season, but he made all three of his 3-point attempts Saturday.
Golden scored four points during a 9-0 run that broke a 7-7 tie and put the Vols ahead for good. After Mays ended that run with a 3-pointer, Golden scored seven points during a 19-2 spurt that gave the Vols a 35-12 advantage.
“We’ve gotten better with our offense, the flow and the movement,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “I think that all starts with Trae Golden. When he’s playing the way we expect him to play, everything falls in line and it just becomes a fun game to play.”
Neither team hid its emotions over the stunning results. Calipari didn’t hesitate to show his frustration, particularly after assistant coach John Robic was ejected from the game with 11:17 left in the first half.
“They got (a) call wrong, and he was disappointed about it and said something,” Calipari said. “I don’t think he said enough to get tossed, but he did.”
After Kentucky called a timeout while trailing 33-12 with 9:51 remaining in the half, McBee pumped his fist at midcourt and all his teammates openly celebrated on the floor as well. After receiving a hard foul from Tennessee’s Armani Moore that appeared to include a push with 2:28 left in the game, Kentucky’s Archie Goodwin quickly got up off the floor and shoved the Mount Paran Christian School graduate in the back.
While Tennessee seemingly could do nothing wrong, Kentucky did little right. The Wildcats had more turnovers (10) than baskets (nine) in the first half.
Tennessee continued pouring it on after halftime. The Vols led by as many as 39 points while Kentucky encountered foul trouble. Poythress fouled out with 9:43 left in the game. Cauley-Stein picked up his fifth foul 22 seconds later. Harrow fouled out with 4:51 remaining and left the game without any points, assists or rebounds in 18 minutes.
“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.”