February 17, 2016

Kentucky couldn't handle the adversity in a shocking loss at Tennessee earlier this month. The young Wildcats have since undeniably grown in that area.

Playing their best basketball of the season, the 14th-ranked Wildcats can avenge that stinging defeat when the Volunteers visit Rupp Arena on Thursday night.

Kentucky's championship credentials were put into question after squandering a 21-point first-half lead in an 84-77 loss to Tennessee on Feb. 2, but it's quieted the critics with blowout wins over three other SEC contenders. The Wildcats have beaten Florida, Georgia and South Carolina by an average of 26.7 points and done so with Alex Poythress, the team's leading rebounder and lone senior, sidelined by a knee injury.

Kentucky (19-6, 9-3 SEC) didn't even need John Calipari in its latest lopsided victory. With their coach ejected less than three minutes in, the energized Wildcats proceeded to hand the Gamecocks their first home loss in Saturday's 89-62 rout.

"I thought it set a fire within our guys,'' associate head coach Kenny Payne said of Calipari's two technical fouls. ''I thought they played with, 'You try and take one of our guys out? We're coming out and going to play with more energy, more effort. We're going to fight more.'''

The Wildcats should remain motivated after Tennessee (12-13, 5-7) scored 48 second-half points and held the dynamic backcourt duo of Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis to a combined 10-of-30 shooting in the previous matchup.

Duplicating the feat figures to be a major challenge. Kentucky has limited opponents to 57.0 points per game and 31.6 percent shooting during the win streak and been on fire from 3-point range, hitting 33 of 66 attempts.

Murray is 18 of 31 on 3s while averaging 28.3 points over that stretch. The star freshman had 26 and Ulis, averaging 21.3 points in his last eight, amassed career highs of 27 and 12 assists against the Gamecocks.

''The story isn't someone else coaching the team, the story is coach Cal coached the team through Tyler Ulis,'' Payne said.

Tennessee hasn't been able to build on what's been the signature win in coach Rick Barnes' first season, losing two of three and shooting under 40 percent in each game. The Volunteers also struggled to defend last-place Missouri, which went 67.9 percent from inside the arc and posted a 41-26 rebounding advantage en route to Saturday's 75-64 victory.

"It is frustrating. It really is," Barnes said. "That is why you do not take playing hard for granted. I think playing hard is a talent. Some things are just nonnegotiable and that is your effort."

The Volunteers finished 14 of 24 from the foul line, an uncharacteristic performance for the SEC's top free-throw shooting team at 73.8 percent. They were 30 of 34 in their upset of the Wildcats, with Kevin Punter Jr. going 10 of 11 in a 27-point effort.

Punter, second in the conference at 22.2 points per game, has scored 21 or more in seven of his last nine but is shooting 36.8 percent over his past four.

Tennessee is seeking its first season sweep of Kentucky since 1999, and first win at Rupp since Feb. 7, 2006. The Volunteers are 1-11 away from home this season and have lost 14 of 15 on the road in the series, including eight straight.

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