KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- What started out as a potential blowout loss developed into one of the most monumental comebacks in Tennessee history.
Kevin Punter Jr. scored 27 points, and Armani Moore added 18 points and 13 rebounds for the Volunteers, who erased a 21-point deficit Tuesday in an 84-77 upset of No. 20 Kentucky.
Tennessee's rally represented a stunning turn of events for a team that had lost its last two games despite leading by at least 14 points in the second half of each. The Volunteers (11-11, 4-5 Southeastern Conference) trailed 34-13 with less than 6 minutes left in the first half.
"We kind of joked around about it," Moore said. "We actually said we liked it better being down instead of being up at the half. It kind of makes us a whole lot hungrier."
Tennessee's media guide doesn't include a list of its biggest comebacks ever, but athletic department spokesman Tom Satkowiak said he believes the 21-point deficit was the largest margin the Vols have erased in a victory since at least December 2006. The comeback matched the seventh-biggest by any Division I team this season, according to STATS LLC.
This marked the second straight defeat for Kentucky (16-6, 6-3), which got 21 points from Jamal Murray and 20 from Tyler Ulis. The Wildcats fell 90-84 in overtime Saturday at No. 7 Kansas, which was ranked fourth at the time.
"We had them down by 21, and they came back and beat our brains in," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "They ended up beating us by 30 in about 25 minutes, and it could have been 50. We've got a ways to go."
The score was tied 70-70 until Robert Hubbs III made a free throw with 5:04 left to start a 7-0 run that put Tennessee ahead for good. Kentucky couldn't cut the margin below three points the rest of the way.
Kentucky seemed on the verge of putting this game out of reach early. But after trailing by 21, Tennessee used a 10-0 run to get within striking distance and cut Kentucky's lead to 42-36 by halftime.
"I kept glancing over at the scoreboard, and I kept looking up there, and we were cutting into it, cutting into it," Punter said. "We hit a few shots and got going, and we were down like six."
The Vols pulled ahead on Detrick Mostella's 3-pointer with 14:09 left. Kentucky regained the lead when Ulis and Derek Willis hit 3-pointers on the next two possessions, but Tennessee kept clawing back and regained the lead at 65-63 on Hubbs' basket with 9:41 remaining.
Although Kentucky tied the score at 70-70, the Wildcats wouldn't lead again.
"I just thought our guys really deserve all the credit in the world, the way they hung in," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "Obviously we weren't playing very well early, but they stayed with it. They really did. There wasn't one person who played that game who didn't help us some way, somehow."
Mostella had 13 points, and Admiral Schofield added 11 points and eight rebounds for Tennessee. Alex Poythress had 12 of his 14 points in the first half for Kentucky.
Kentucky: The Wildcats are 151-68 in this series. Kentucky has lost to Tennessee more than any other team.
Tennessee: Kyle Alexander, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward, made his third career start as Hubbs moved to the bench. Alexander started for the first time since Dec. 29. Tennessee had been using a starting lineup with nobody taller than 6-5.
"I never did get worried," Moore said of the 21-point deficit. "I just wanted us to step it up on defense. Obviously we're a whole lot better than that. It's a game of runs."
Tennessee went 30-of-34 from the free throw line and made its first 21 attempts. ... This marked the 18th time an unranked Tennessee team has beaten a ranked Kentucky squad.
Kentucky: hosts Florida on Saturday.
Tennessee: is at Arkansas on Saturday.
- Ron Groover
- Keith Kimble
- Karl Hess