The University of Kentucky has been a good defensive team for much of the SEC basketball season.
It hasn’t gotten the benefit of that because of its offensive struggles — at least until the last few games.
UK learned the value of being more aggressive and carrying that over defensively in a big-time 70-55 win at No. 19 Tennessee on Saturday.
“Just a point of emphasis of having your teammates back,” Keion Brooks Jr. said on Saturday. “Not leaving anybody on an island so that they could get downhill on us. Check the basket. They did a great job of that last game. I feel like this game we had a much better game plan of stopping their penetration. Being out there, helping each other.”
Playing as a team and taking the fight to Tennessee caught on in Knoxville.
“They go together,” Brooks said. “The more physical you are, the more things you are able to do. You can’t make a lot of plays being pushed around and getting bullied. When we come with that physicality, being aggressive and asserting ourselves, that frees you up to make more plays.”
Brooks had plenty of impact with 10 points and a career-high 14 rebounds. Both of the double-doubles of his career have been this season against Tennessee.
When a team defends like Kentucky did in the second half, it can have all kinds of offensive ugliness and still pull off an improbable road win.
The Wildcats missed 23 shots in the second half at Tennessee, and they still left Knoxville with a 15-point win.
They held a UT team that had broken 80 points three of its previous four games to just 55 points.
It was Kentucky’s best field-goal-percentage defense against Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena (32.1%) since Jan. 20, 2004 (30.9%).
Kentucky shot 20.7% in the second half and the lead did not shrink. That’s how drastically UK put the clamps down defensively.
There were not nearly as many drives to the basket by Tennessee guards.
Tennessee freshmen Keion Johnson and Jaden Springer combined for 50 points in the first meeting with the Wildcats, an 82-71 Vols victory. This time they had 19.
Through games on Feb. 17, Kentucky ranked 30th nationally in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. KenPom.com also rates UK’s effective field-goal-percentage defense (46.4%) and block percentage (15.9%) among the top 50 in the nation.
The Wildcats have also been helping themselves at the free-throw line. They made 12-of-15 foul shots in the second half at UT.
UK (8-13, 7-7 in the SEC) has made 41-of-45 free throws in its last two games, both wins.
UK seemed to have a total team performance — when the offense was off, the defense took over. The switch in the formula this time was UK got out to a hot start and had a 45-30 lead at halftime.
“Just for us to keep that lead, that’s huge,” said Davion Mintz, who was 5-for-5 on 3-pointers in the first half and finished with 15 points. “It showed the past three, four games, for us to continue to fight throughout the last six, five, four minutes, that’s a huge improvement.
“Keion mentioned earlier about the fact that we’re all new guys playing with each other, trying to find that glue. Of course, it came late for us, but that’s a huge accomplishment for this team, it’s kind of what coach has been pushing.”