KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Kentucky understands that its brand name often brings out the best efforts from opponents.
The top-ranked Wildcats have answered that challenge well enough to put together the best start in the program’s storied history.
Devin Booker had 18 points and seven rebounds Tuesday night as Kentucky picked up its defense in the second half and pulled away for a 66-48 victory over Tennessee. Kentucky is 26-0 for the first time, though the Wildcats finished the 1953-54 season with a 25-0 mark.
“It’s like that whether you’re the best of Kentucky or you’re the worst of Kentucky,” Wildcats 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein said. “They’re still trying to beat Kentucky, so you have to come out ready to play with them. If not, then they get beer muscles and they think they can play with you. You have to come out ready to swing. Otherwise you’re going to get hit in the mouth.”
Kentucky (13-0 SEC) took a few punches Tuesday before delivering the knockout blow.
The Wildcats won despite shooting 5 of 22 from 3-point range and allowing the much-smaller Volunteers to match them 34-all in rebounds and outscore them 34-22 in the paint. Tennessee trailed by just four with 9 minutes left before Kentucky went on a 10-0 run to put the game away.
Kentucky has matched the best start for a team coached by John Calipari, who won his first 26 games at Massachusetts in 1995-96 and was 26-0 at Memphis in 2007-08. Both of those squads went on to reach the Final Four, though neither won the national championship.
“Every one of the teams was different,” Calipari said. “They’re all different. This team is the deepest of the three. The UMass team, I played five or six, my guards played 38 minutes. Totally different. The Memphis team, we were pretty good defensively there, too, but we didn’t have the size this team has.”
Andrew Harrison scored 14 points and Trey Lyles added 10 for Kentucky. Kevin Punter scored 14 and Josh Richardson had 10 for Tennessee (14-11, 6-7).
After shooting 54.2 percent (13 of 24) in the first half, Tennessee shot just 25 percent (8 of 32) in the second. The Volunteers went 2 for 17 from 3-point range and 4 of 10 on free throws.
“We didn’t shoot the ball very well, but all that is a credit to Kentucky because they’re a heck of a defensive team,” Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall said. “Their length at every position challenges and bothers shots, and it certainly bothered us some tonight.”
Kentucky: Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 13.8 points and 9.5 rebounds in the four games leading up to this one, but foul trouble prevented him from getting in sync Tuesday. Towns picked up two fouls in the first 54 seconds and sat out the rest of the first half. The 6-foot-11 freshman finished with three points and four rebounds, but Calipari said Towns’ presence in the second half had much to do with the Wildcats’ improved defense.
Tennessee: The Vols trail the all-time series 151-67, though Kentucky has more losses to Tennessee than any other program. … Tennessee is 4-13 against teams ranked No. 1. The Vols are 4-5 in their last nine games against top-ranked teams.
Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison, who entered averaging a team-high 11.1 points per game, shot 1 of 7 and scored just two points. He has scored two points or fewer in three of his last five games. … Tennessee forward Tariq Owens, sporting a newly shaved head, scored a career-high five points. His three-point play put Tennessee ahead 26-23 late in the first half.
“At a school like Kentucky, to hold the records that they’re holding, it’s incredible stuff now,” Calipari said of the 26-0 start. “But there’s so much more. We don’t need all this other stuff that’s out there. I’m watching closely all these shows that are saying how to beat us because I want to make sure that I learn what to do when they say, ‘This is what you do to beat them.’ I’m watching those shows so closely.”
Kentucky hosts Auburn on Saturday.
Tennessee plays at Ole Miss on Saturday.
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