The Volunteers emerged with a huge victory that snapped the Wildcats' hot streak along with 10 perfect years of holding a double-digit halftime lead.
John Fulkerson scored a career-high 27 points, and Yves Pons made several key jumpers down the stretch as Tennessee rallied from a 17-point deficit to upset Kentucky 81-73 on Tuesday night.
The Wildcats (24-6, 14-3 Southeastern Conference) had been 129-0 the past 10 years when leading by double digits at halftime, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Considering how Tennessee (17-13, 9-8) methodically converted that deficit into a lead over the final 20 minutes, it didn't care.
“We just kept fighting,” said Fulkerson, who mingled with happy Volunteers fans long after the final horn. "I kept trying to look at the score at the top of the (scoreboard) and couldn't find it, which I guess was a good thing.
“But it was such a team effort, everybody played well. Guys from the bench came in and contributed. This was no surprise to me. I knew we were capable of this, I knew that if everybody comes to play we can get the job done.”
The Vols also had the clock in their favor.
The Wildcats appeared in control leading 51-34 early in the second half before the Volunteers outscored them 29-9 over 10:09 to lead 63-60. Kentucky tied it at 63, but Pons answered with a 3-pointer and Fulkerson added two free throws to stay ahead.
Pons then added consecutive jumpers to make it 72-66 with 1:48 left. Nick Richards’ two free throws cut the lead to four, but Josiah-Jordan James put back his missed jumper to make it a six-point game again with 1:05 left. He finished with 16 points, all after halftime.
James then made three free throws, and Santiago Vescovi and Jordan Bowden (11 points) each added two more in the final minute to seal its Tennessee’s second consecutive victory and just its sixth at Rupp Arena. Two of those wins have come in the last three seasons, and the Vols have beaten Kentucky six of nine times overall.
Pons finished with 15 points.
Meanwhile, Fulkerson made his first seven attempts to finish 10 of 15 from the field along with all seven free throws to top his previous best of 25 against South Carolina on Feb. 15.
“He was terrific,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said of the junior forward. “What he did tonight is one of the greatest performances I have witnessed.”
As for other players jumping in, Barnes added, “Our guys were confident even when we were down,. When we were down, everybody made it happen.”
Tyrese Maxey had 21 points and Immanuel Quickley 15 for Kentucky, which clinched the SEC regular season title last weekend. The Wildcats appeared poised to continue their best stretch this season before being outrebounded 23-12 in the second half and 31-26 overall.
“The game got physical and we couldn’t compete,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Don’t make it about us, it’s about Tennessee and how they played.”
“They made some unbelievable shots, some threes and they just kept coming.”
As Tennessee seemed to be on the same page, Kentucky looked out of sync at times. That showed with Wildcats guard Ashton Hagans and forward Nick Richards having what appeared to be several exchanges.
Asked afterward, Calipari said it was likely due to both players making mistakes.
“Neither one played particularly well,” Calipari said, “so they’re probably telling each other, ‘You’re not playing well, and neither are you, neither are you, neither are you.’”
Tennessee: The Vols could have wilted after Kentucky built the big lead, but they stayed with it and outhustled the Wildcats on both ends. Fulkerson’s hot shooting kept them in the game before others got involved in the second half and knocked down big shots. They finished 53% from the field and 8 of 18 from long range.
Kentucky: Just when the Wildcats appeared in gear and headed toward their 16th consecutive home win, they got sloppy with the ball and missed shots. They followed up 55% shooting before halftime with just 33% in the second and saw their winning streak end at eight games. They finished 16-2 at Rupp, with losses to the Vols and unranked Evansville in November while ranked No. 1.
Kentucky can recover Saturday at Florida, but this loss hurt its chances of cracking the top five.
Tennessee seeks a season split at home Saturday against No. 17 Auburn, which is tied for second with LSU.
Kentucky aims to complete a season sweep on Saturday at Florida, which looks to regroup from a loss to the Volunteers.