Josh Harrellson added 16 points as the Wildcats (17-6, 5-4 Southeastern Conference) broke a modest two-game losing streak by burying the Volunteers with a big run in each half.
Pearl, suspended for Tennessee's first eight conference games by SEC commissioner Mike Slive as punishment for lying to NCAA investigators during an ongoing probe into the school's recruiting practices, wore his trademark creamsicle blazer but was more subdued than usual.
Melvin Goins led Tennessee (15-9, 5-4) with 16 points and Scotty Hopson had 11 after missing two games with a left ankle injury but the Volunteers never got going.
Tennessee shot just 41 percent from the field, turned it over 14 times and never got closer than five points over the game's final 30 minutes.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said the Wildcats were in "crisis" after consecutive losses to Mississippi and No. 17 Florida, the first losing streak he's endured in six years. He stressed the need for his team, particularly the upperclassmen, to play with some urgency after slipping into a tie for last place in the competitive SEC East.
Kentucky responded with arguably its best game against a quality opponent in weeks. Maybe it helped that former star John Wall, now playing for the Washington Wizards, was around to provide inspiration from his spot courtside.
Liggins, averaging 5.0 points on 29 percent shooting over the last five games, was aggressive at both ends of the court. He made 5 of 6 field goals and 7 of 8 free throws while adding five rebounds and five steals.
Harrellson, chided by Calipari for inconsistent play after appearing to be on the verge of a breakthrough a month ago, scored 12 points in the second half including two big putbacks on offensive rebounds.
It was more than enough to put a damper on Pearl's much-anticipated return to work.
Pearl said Monday he was ready to get back on the bus after watching Tennessee's first eight conference games on television. He joked Slive actually wanted to suspend him for 10 games but shortened it to eight after seeing Tennessee played at Kentucky and Florida this week.
Pearl was smiling when he said it. The smile faded quickly once he walked onto the Rupp Arena court, perhaps because of a well-prepared student section that featured a handful of signs hinting at Pearl's NCAA trouble.
Tennessee's play early in the first half did little to lift his mood. Kentucky overcame a slow start, making five of its first six 3-pointers build a 19-point lead even with point guard Brandon Knight spending the last 9:28 on the bench saddled with two fouls.
Hopson soon followed after collecting his second foul, but Pearl sent him back out to keep Tennessee in it. His presence seemed to calm down the Volunteers and they ended the half on a 14-2 run to get within 35-28.
While the students were giving Pearl an eyeful, the fans directly behind the Tennessee bench gave him an earful. Pearl asked security to get involved as he walked off the court at halftime and his assistants appeared to exchange words with several people in Kentucky gear moments before the second half started.
The razzing, however, turned into a roar as Kentucky used a 16-3 surge early in the second half to grab a 51-33 lead and cruise from there.