Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl was back in his usual spot, roaming the sideline for the Volunteers on Tuesday night against No. 18 Kentucky in his trademark creamsicle blazer following an eight-game suspension for lying to the NCAA about the program’s recruiting practices.
“It feels like normal, it’s good to get yelled at,” Pearl said.
Getting beat? Not so much.
DeAndre Liggins tied a careerhigh with 19 points and the Wildcats ruined Pearl’s return to the bench with a 73-61 victory.
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.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said the Wildcats were in “crisis” after consecutive losses to Mississippi and No. 17 Florida last week, 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.
Hoping to instill some toughness he had the Wildcats don boxing gloves in practice, where they worked the heavy bag with regularity.
“I showed them how to jab,” Calipari said. “You’ve got to be rough. You’ve got to be willing to fight. You can’t let people take our stuff.”
Certainly not the Volunteers, who survived Pearl’s eight-game reprimand by SEC commissioner Mike Slive just fine. They won five of their eight conference games with Pearl watching on TV. It was difficult being away from his players. Watching them get outmuscled by the Wildcats, however, wasn’t much better.
Kentucky dominated the glass, outrebounding Tennessee 38-28, often ripping balls out of the hands of a Tennessee player who seemed to have it secured.
“In the area (Kentucky) had to win, which I thought was the area of toughness and rebounding, I thought they did win,” Pearl said.
Kentucky played arguably its best game against a quality opponent in more than a month, thanks in part to the presence of former star John Wall, now playing for the Washington Wizards. Wall sat courtside during the game and joined the team in the locker room, providing words of wisdom.
Whatever he said, it seemed to have an effect on Liggins. The junior guard came in averaging 5.0 points on 29 percent shooting over the last five games, but dominated play on both ends of the floor. 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.
“Obviously if Josh, Darius (Miller) and DeAndre play like this, it’s much easier,” Calipari said.
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.
“I don’t think everybody came to play today,” Tennessee center Brian Williams said. “I don’t think we were on the same page. We had a game plan and we didn’t stick to it at all.”
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.
It was more than enough to put a damper on Pearl’s muchanticipated return to work.
Pearl said Monday he was ready to get back on the bus, joking 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 wellprepared 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.
Pearl said he didn’t mind the taunts. The language, however, was another issue.
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 put the first oncourt turbulence of Calipari’s short tenure firmly in the rearview mirror.
“I put on the board: refuse to lose,” Calipari said. “Figure out a way. … We played really smart down the stretch.”