Chris Livingston goes up for 2 of his 12 in the win over Tennessee. (Elliott Hess | UK Athletics)

In what is becoming a most unusual college basketball season, the saving grace for the Kentucky Wildcats just might be the Tennessee Volunteers.

Yes, Big Blue’s arch-rival prior to the arrival of Louisville on the UK schedule – that Tennessee. Ray Mears, Stu Aberdeen, Jimmy England… Bernie and Ernie, Dale Ellis, Chris Lofton, Grant Williams. Those guys.

Ranked #10 when the current Big Orange Bunch arrived in Lexington, still beaming from an upset win over top-ranked Alabama, the Vols headed home after another loss to the Wildcats, this time falling 66-54.

The value of a second win over the Rocky Toppers can not be overstated. For about a month, UK’s victory in Knoxville was just about the only beacon of hope when it came to its Selection Sunday future. 

But in one week the Wildcats have rung up a pair of Quad 1 wins, over Mississippi State Wednesday evening and now the Volunteers, again, Saturday afternoon.

Kentucky took advantage of cold UT shooting in the first half and more rugged board play to race off to a 39-19 halftime lead. 

The Wildcats needed (almost) every bit of it as they opened the second period with a flurry of turnovers, watching the Vols pour in seven straight points.

Tennessee would get as close as eight, on a layup by Jahmai Mashack with 7:25 to play. The Vols, who missed 12-of-13 three-pointers in the first half, knocked down 5 of their first 8 in the second (although they missed their last six).  Santia Vescovi, seemingly a constant needle to the neck of the Wildcats in what feels like about a dozen seasons at UT, was scoreless before recess. He dumped in 17 after the break.

But the Wildcats had their own weapon. Mr. Livingston, I presume? You betcha. 

Oscar Tshiebwe scores 2 of his 16 in the win over Tennessee (Grant Lee | UK Athletics)

Gone is the freshman we saw earlier this season, in and out of the lineup, seemingly unsure of himself. Livingston now is playing as though he knows he’s one of the best players on the floor.

“I would be lying if I said I was just happy-go-lucky the whole time, and honestly you must be tough to go through what I went through and what a lot of players go through being at Kentucky,” he said. “So, I was just waiting for my turn. I just stayed with the process and trusted the

process and look where we are now.”

“He’s building his own self esteem, his own confidence,” John Calipari said.  “He’s really smart. Cares, like, too much. Was listening to too many voices (early in the season).”

Livingston is playing like the five-star prospect he was touted to be. “He was doing it in practice and then you got to have a demonstrated performance in the game,” Calipari said. “He’s now that guy.”

Forced to play 36 minutes by the ongoing absence of C.J. Fredrick and Sahvir Wheeler, Livingston finished with his first college double-double — 10 rebounds and 12 points. He impressed the reigning college basketball Player of the Year.

“Chris struggled in the beginning,” Oscar Tshiebwe said, “but now he has seen how college is. H e found out he’s a beast and now he needs to go out as a beast and dominate.”

 As well as he played, Livingston’s free throw shooting was, well, beastly. He was an uncharacteristic 3-of-7 at the free throw line.

In fact, it was an ugly array of shooting at the stripe for both teams, with the Wildcats 23-of-35 (despite a 10-of-11 effort by Tshiebwe).  Tennessee was 4-of-14 from the line, twice treating the Rupp Arena faithful to free Chic-fil-A sandwiches with Vol shooters coming up empty on two-shot fouls in the second half. 

Fortunately for the Wildcats, the guy who had the ball in his hands the most came through, again, when it counted. Cason Wallace shared team-high honors with Tshiebwe with 16, hitting 6-of-14 from the field but 4-of-5 from the stripe. Wallace added six rebounds and six assists with only three turnovers, at one point going 33 straight minutes without an error.

“Cason played 37 minutes,” Calipari said. “Chris played 30-whatever minutes. So we’re playing a lot of minutes. But I’ll tell you, they never stopped fighting. They fought the whole time.”

And now they have swept the Tennessee Vols, winning both regular season games – just as their predecessors did when they were winning their way to three straight national title games in 1996, ’97 and ’98.  Players and coaches from those three teams were in the house Saturday afternoon, along with their championship trophy hardware.

And now the current Wildcats have fought their way back into the national picture with a chance to win a trophy of their own. Selection Sunday just might be of interest to the Big Blue Nation, after all.

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