Tennessee certainly could've used Allan Houston Sunday afternoon against rival Kentucky, when the former Vol great had his No. 20 retired at half time.
With second place in the SEC East and a bye in the opening round of the SEC Tournament on the line, the Volunteers (18-13, 8-8 SEC) couldn't sustain their half time lead, and allowed the No. 23-ranked Wildcats (22-8, 10-6 SEC) to escape Knoxville on Senior Day with just their second conference road win of the season, 64-58.
"To leave second place on the table, where we had the opportunity to finish right there with Kentucky, is disappointing," UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "To not be able to add to the history of our program, as far as the rivalry is concerned, is disappointing when you get swept by Kentucky.
"... I thought our effort was good enough to win the ball game tonight. You could look at the start of the second half, or you could look at not getting those 50-50 balls at the end. You could point to a couple of things, but I thought we played hard enough to win."
Tennessee led 29-22 at the half. The Vols never trailed in the first half, after jumping out to an early 7-0 lead, and led by as many as 10 points, 16-6, following a one-handed dunk by junior guard Cameron Tatum with 11:07 left in the first half.
Kentucky shot just 28.6 percent (8-of-28) from the field in the first half, and the 22 points were its lowing scoring half of the season.
"I thought we guarded Kentucky about as well as they have been guarded this year, particularly in the first half," Pearl said.
But the second 20 minutes would be a different story.
Kentucky scored the first seven points of the second half, tying the game at 29 on a Brandon Knight three from the top of the key at the 18:21 mark. A Doron Lamb 3-pointer gave the Wildcats their first lead of the contest at 32-31 with 17 minutes remaining in the game.
The 18-4 Kentucky run to start the second half culminated in a Darius Miller dunk off an in-bounds play to give the Wildcats a 40-33 lead with 14:39 left.
The Vols would fight their way back, eventually taking a 52-51 lead on a Kenny Hall hook shot with 5:56 remaining. It would be the last lead UT had on the day.
"They outhustled us towards the end of the game," freshman Tobias Harris said. "That was the key for the game right there."
Tennessee kept the game within two possessions over the closing minutes but couldn't keep Kentucky off the offensive glass.
"Obviously, the rebounding was a big factor down the stretch," Pearl said. "We had a couple of chances where we got stops and couldn't secure a rebound. From that standpoint, it was disappointing that we never made that last play to maybe give ourselves a chance to come back and win the game."
As has been the case all year for the Vols, not getting a stop on defense or a bucket on offense resulted in another frustrating loss on Sunday.
"It is very difficult, in the sense that the game was right there, we had it," Harris said. "A couple of plays didn't go our way, and we just couldn't finish it out."
Kentucky shot 44 percent (11-of-25) in the second half, and knocked down six 3-pointers — including five straight to open the half — after hitting just one shot from beyond the arc in the first half.
"Obviously, they made some shots, they knocked down seven three balls," Pearl said. "I thought their three-point shooting, when they needed a big basket, they got a big three."
Knight led the Wildcats with 19 points, including 17 in the second half. Miller added 15 points. Despite shooting just 3-of-15 from the field, Terrence Jones scored 15 points (9-of-15 from the free-throw line) and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Harris led the Vols with 18 points.
"I thought Tobias gave us great confidence, and you could see that he was a lot more healthy in this game than he was the last time the two teams played," Pearl said. "... I thought Tobias played really, really well on both ends of the floor."
Despite leading the team in scoring on 7-of-13 shooting from the field, Pearl would've liked for Harris to have gotten more opportunities on the offensive end.
"Tobias should've gotten more than 13 shots," said Pearl. "I know he led us in shots attempted, but we should've gotten him the ball more. We should've been looking for him more."
Junior guard Scotty Hopson scored just 13 points on 2-of-10 from the field, but made 9-of-11 free throws, all in the second half. Hopson had averaged more than 23 points per game over the Vols' past six contests entering Sunday.
"They shaded my side a lot," Hopson said. "It was tough. The help came quicker, and they made it apparent not to let us get easy drives to the basket."
The loss was the Vols' eighth home loss on the year, their most since the 1994-95 season.
"The home court didn't beat us," Pearl said. "We had all the advantages, and just we didn't not take advantage of it."
Still, Pearl believes the Vols are on the cusp.
"We're close," he said. "We're close enough to almost finish second in the league and get a bye in the league, but we're far enough away to finish fifth. We're close enough to be in discussion for the NCAA Tournament, I don't know exactly where we are at, but I know the more we win the SEC Tournament the more we help ourselves. I still feel like we are in position, but we've obviously missed another opportunity."
While Tennessee missed the opportunity on Sunday, the Vols will have another opportunity in the postseason.
"This team still has an opportunity to write its history, and how badly they want it and how focused they're willing to be, we're good enough to beat anybody in the league," Pearl said.