By Lizzie Hull

Photos by SEC Digital

TAMPA — Oscar Tshiebwe played just 25 minutes Saturday afternoon as the third-seeded Kentucky Wildcats lost to Tennessee, 69-62 in the semifinal round of the SEC Tournament.  The Cats missed him when they needed him the most.

After Tshiebwe picked up two fouls before the midway point in the first half and headed for the bench, the Wildcats looked lost for the rest of the period. And they seemed doomed when he picked up his fifth foul with 3:37 left to play but still, Kentucky

Oscar Tshiebwe picked up his 27th double-double in the loss to Tennessee

made a game of it.

The Volunteers followed Tshiebwe’s departure with a triple by Zakai Zeigler, putting them up 61-49. Despite the loss of the Player of the Year, the Cats went on a 13-4 run, slicing the deficit to three at 65-62 with 1:31 left. Owning all the momentum, Kentucky seemed to be on the verge of a magnificent comeback.

On its next possession, Tennessee tried to find a shot against Kentucky’s suffocating defensive pressure. Kennedy Chandler rose for a jumper but TyTy Washington blocked it. Chandler grabbed the carom and launched again, finding back iron. 

This is where the Cats missed the Big O.

With three blue jerseys under the basket, the critical rebound (ordinarily Tshiebwe’s personal plaything) went to Tennessee’s Santiago Vescovi, who was fouled immediately.

Vescovi hit one of two, putting Tennessee up by four with 58 seconds remaining. Instead of attacking the basket, the Wildcats settled for a series of desperate three-point attempts, none finding the net.

Tennessee hit free throws down the stretch and now it’s the Vols who will play Texas A&M for the SEC’s automatic bid on Sunday afternoon. 

Tshiebwe has struggled this year against the Volunteers, averaging 11 points between the first two meetings. Even though he saw limited playing time thanks to his foul trouble Saturday, he still recorded his 27th double-double of the season. 

Josiah-Jordan James got Tennessee off to a hot start with eight of the Volunteers’ first 12 points, including back to back 3-pointers that would erase Kentucky’s 4-2 lead, the Wildcats’ only advantage of the afternoon. 

Kentucky’s struggles on the offensive end through poor shot selection and foul trouble was fatal in its attempt to advance to the SEC Tournament championship game. The Wildcats hit just 34 percent from the field, missing 18 of 20 three-point attempts.

“Congratulations to Tennessee,” said John Calipari. “They did a great job. They fought. We had our chances. We didn’t shoot the ball particularly well today. Some of that was us. Some of that was Tennessee.” 

Davion Mintz and Kellan Grady, the most accurate three-point shooter in the SEC this season, combined for just three points on 0-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc. 

“Who did I get the last shot for that I thought could close the gap?” said John Calipari on Grady’s last minute shot attempt. “I’m surprised someone didn’t ask me, why would you do that? Because I really believe in him. Even when he is playing that way, I believe in him.” 

As they watched their 11-point halftime lead disappear, the Volunteers never gave in to panic.  “During a timeout, Coach said they got their run,” Chandler said.“So we knew coming out of that timeout we have to step our game up and get some stops on the defensive end, and that’s what we did.” 

Chandler and Vescovi would combine for 28 of Tennessee’s 69 points, with help from Zakai Zeigler, who added 11 and James, 10.

Perhaps the only bright spot in an otherwise struggling Kentucky offense was Keion Brooks, who finished with 19 points to lead all Kentucky scorers.  Brooks put in the Wildcats’ first triple of the day with just 6:53 remaining in the game. They would finish 2-of-20 from distance.

“We lost today.” said Brooks. “That sucks, but moving forward, we just want to continue to hammer down on being disciplined, being focused, because our coaches are going to put us in the right place to be successful. It’s us out there. We just have to make sure we execute.” 

The Wildcats, now 26-7, will no longer be in contention for a No. 1 seed on selection Sunday. They’ll have all day to wait before they find out where they land in the upcoming NCAA tournament. 

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