(AP) — Kentucky and Tennessee have been neck and neck all season long.
They both finished 15-3 in the SEC regular season, tied for second place, a game behind LSU. The Wildcats beat the Volunteers in Lexington, and the Volunteers beat the Wildcats in Knoxville.
Now comes the rubber match in the semifinals of the SEC tournament Saturday afternoon in Nashville.
No. 4 Kentucky (27-5), the second and highest remaining seed in the tournament after LSU was upset by No. 8 Florida on Friday, advanced with a 73-55 victory against 10th-seeded Alabama on Friday night.
Shortly thereafter, No. 8 Tennessee (28-4), the third seed, advanced with an 83-76 victory against sixth-seeded Mississippi State.
“It was a good win,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said after Kentucky avenged a 77-75 loss at the Crimson Tide on Jan. 5, in the SEC opener for both schools in Tuscaloosa, Ala. “I thought we really guarded. We rebounded. The last time we played them, they out-rebounded us by 10 rebounds. This game we out-rebounded them by 10 rebounds.”
Kentucky received a boost with the return of forward Reid Travis, who had missed the last five games because of a sprained knee. He came off the bench Friday and finished with eight points and seven rebounds.
“Good to have Reid back,” Calipari said. “Just the strength in having a guy when it comes time, you have to go get the ball, he can physically get down there and go get it.”
Travis played 23 minutes as he tries to work his way back into the starting lineup.
“I feel good right now,” Travis said. “I’m 100 percent. I wouldn’t go out there if I didn’t feel confident and strong in my knee. Ultimately it’s just going to take some time to get my rhythm back, but my body feels great right now.
“I felt like I did the necessary things the three weeks I was out to keep my body in shape, to stay engaged with the team so I could be successful when I came out here. All in all, I thought it was pretty good for my first time out.”
The winner of the Kentucky-Tennessee game will face the winner of the Florida-Auburn matchup in the title game on Sunday.
“It’s been a pretty good run right now,” Calipari said. “To win in any kind of tournament — this tournament, the next tournament — you have to put strings of games together where you play 40 minutes.”
Tennessee tied the second-most victories in program history as it bounced back from an 84-80 loss at Auburn in its regular-season finale to hold off the Bulldogs in its first game in six days.
“I thought it was a really hard-fought game,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said. “We just grinded it out.”
Both of the regular-season meetings between the Vols and the Wildcats were lopsided in favor of the home team, as Kentucky coasted 86-69 on Feb. 16, and Tennessee cruised 71-52 on March 2.
“It’s been a great rivalry,” said Vols guard Admiral Schofield, who had a thunderous dunk that brought roars from the crowd in the victory over Mississippi State. “We enjoy it. I’m pretty sure they enjoy it. It’s going to be a physical game.”
Tennessee forward Grant Williams, who earlier in the week was named the SEC Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, said he expected a third meeting with the Wildcats.
“I didn’t think (it would happen), I knew it,” Williams said.
Now they meet for a chance to play for the SEC tournament title and perhaps a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“We know each other,” Barnes said. “I expect it to be another hard-fought game, a physical game.”
–Field Level Media