LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Three timelines collided at Rupp Arena Saturday afternoon.
Kentucky’s troubled past. His exciting presence. And what looks like a bright future.
The present: Great Britain prevailed with No. 11 Tennessee and dominated their border state rival en route to a 66-54 victory.
The win gave the Wildcats (18-9, SEC 9-5) a regular-season win in the Volunteers — both with a Tennessee team ranked in the top 10 in the Associated Press poll at the time of the games. It was also Kentucky’s second Quad 1 win — the competitions that are the most important factor in determining a team’s NCAA worthiness — in four days, after Wednesday’s 71-68 win over Mississippi State in Starkville, Mississippi .
Saturday was a performance befitting teams from the 1996–1998 Wildcats and honored at halftime. These teams made three straight Final Fours, appeared in a trio of national championship games, and won titles in the first and final seasons of that illustrious run. Saturday’s convincing win is also representative of what Kentucky (18-9, 9-5 SEC) hopes to have in store next season when the country’s top-ranked recruiting class comes to town. One of those signers, Justin Edwards of Philadelphia, was present at the Rupp Arena along with more than 20,000 members of the Wildcat faithful.
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During a first-half break, Edwards walked to midcourt, where the crowd gave the future wildcat a standing ovation.
The recognition of the three sides from Britain’s happier days in the 1990s, along with Edward’s performance, came amid the side’s most impressive win of the season in 2022-23. The Wildcats are still trying to work their way out of the NCAA tournament bubble and into a more comfortable position next Sunday of selection.
And Britain is in a far better place now than it was seven days ago.
On February 11, Kentucky lost en route to Georgia, a team ranked below the NET 100. It was the second setback of its kind for the Wildcats this season. (Unfortunate South Carolina, who beat Britain at home, is the other.) That loss to the Bulldogs also meant the Wildcats had twice as many questionable losses as Quad 1 wins. But after going 2-0 this week, Britain now have three Quad 1 triumphs – two of them against the Vols – in the season.
The latest came as the Wildcats fielded an undermanned roster against a not-so-strong Tennessee roster (20-7, 9-5) for the third straight season. Kentucky was without senior guards CJ Fredrick (ribs) and Sahvir Wheeler (ankles); The Volunteers countered with Josiah-Jordan James (ankle) and Julian Phillips (hip flexors) glued to the bench.
The game started out looking like an attrition, with both teams missing six of their first seven shots; They had scored six points together (UK 4, UT 2) at the first media timeout, which came at 15:51 in the half.
However, as the half went on, the Wildcats began to flex their muscles.
When time ran out in the first half, Kentucky led 39:19.
However, Tennessee fought back in the second half, beating the hosts 35-27 in the final 20 minutes. The Volunteers drew within eight points twice in the final eight minutes. But it was too big a hole to dig against a Kentucky team who, given the quality of their opponents — UT toppled top-ranked Alabama Wednesday at the Thompson-Boling Arena — have played their best game of the season .
Two freshmen went ahead.
Cason Wallace, who struggled mightily against Mississippi State (1 of 13 from the field despite having 11 assists), bounced back Saturday to score 16 points. He also grabbed six rebounds and dished out six game-high assists. Chris Livingston had 12 points, put down four of the five shots he attempted and also had 10 rebounds, the most among any player in Saturday’s game, for the first double-double of his collegiate career.
Older forward Oscar Tshiebwe had 16 points and equaled the team-high with Wallace. His older fellow striker Jacob Toppin (11) also landed in double figures.
Guard Santiago Vescovi poured in 17 points for Tennessee to lead all scorers on Saturday.
Kentucky is headed for its next game, heading to Gainesville, Fla. on Wednesday to play Florida. Kentucky won the first matchup between the two this season, earning a 72-67 win on February 4 in Lexington.
Wednesday’s game is scheduled for 7 p.m. It airs nationally on ESPN.