Tennessee falls below .500, second-half collapses a concern
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee's chances of avoiding its first losing season in over a decade could rest on stopping its recent trend of second-half collapses.
The Volunteers have dropped two straight games after leading by at least 14 points in the second half of each of them. Tennessee has blown second-half leads of at least 13 points in three of its last seven games.
Tennessee (10-11, 3-5 SEC) will try to turn things around Tuesday when it hosts No. 20 Kentucky (16-5, 6-2).
''What it gets down to as much as anything for us is how do we handle adversity,'' Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
Tennessee squandered a 41-27 halftime advantage Saturday in a 75-63 loss at TCU. Four days earlier, the Vols blew a 15-point lead in the last 14 minutes to fall 63-57 at Alabama. The Vols also led by 13 points in the second half of a 92-88 loss to No. 8 Texas A&M on Jan. 9.
The only other Division I team to lose three games that it led by at least 13 points in the second half this season is Loyola (Maryland), according to STATS LLC. The only other Division I school to drop back-to-back games it led by at least 14 points in the second half is Northeastern, which also had that dubious outcome in its two most recent contests.
''We're playing against teams that are going to fight back,'' Barnes said. ''They're not just going to go away. When that happens, when they start coming back, how do we respond? That's what we haven't done a really good job of.''
The Vols' recent second-half fades have dropped their record below .500. Tennessee, which went 16-16 last year, hasn't finished a season with a losing record since going 14-17 in 2004-05.
Tennessee figured to endure some growing pains this year. Barnes is Tennessee's third coach in as many seasons. The Vols have been starting nobody over 6-foot-5, though 6-9 forward Kyle Alexander had a breakthrough performance off the bench Saturday and tied a school single-game record with six blocks.
Kentucky coach John Calipari believes Barnes will get Tennessee headed in the right direction. The two veteran coaches are longtime friends. When it became apparent Barnes' Texas tenure was nearing an end last season, Calipari advised him to take over Tennessee's program and called it one of the best jobs in the SEC.
''He is a guy that I've called on many times as my teams struggled, as I struggled, (and said to him), `Talk to me. Tell me what you'd do here. How would you do this?' '' Calipari said. ''I'm telling you, he's one of the best in our business - one of the best.''
Kentucky also wants to start playing better down the stretch.
The Wildcats led for much of its game Saturday before falling 90-84 in overtime at No. 7 Kansas, which was ranked fourth at the time.
''Our last four games, they've fought like heck,'' Calipari said. ''They've had a refuse-to-lose attitude every game. Teaching them how to win and how to finish off games is on me. That's my job. Their job is to go there and fight like crazy. My job is to help them understand and have maybe more structure in how we finish off a game.''
AP Sports Writer Gary Graves in Lexington, Kentucky, contributed to this report.