LEXINGTON, Ky. - Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl said it best one day earlier: "It's still Kentucky.''
The Wildcats defeated the No. 3 Vols 72-66 at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night, a day after UT received its highest ranking in school history. Kentucky also ended UT's 11-game win streak.
Kentucky freshman Patrick Patterson proved too much to handle under the basket, scoring 20 points and pulling down eight rebounds as the Wildcats (8-9, 2-2 SEC) pulled away in final minutes.
While Kentucky was still Kentucky, Pearl made it clear he didn't think Tennessee (16-2, 3-1) played like the same team that had matched its best start in school history.
"Every team has to find an identity, and so far this year ours is to play with passion and poise,'' Pearl said. "I thought tonight Kentucky was the more passionate team.
"How can a team that's leading the SEC in assists, by far, have only eight assists on 22 baskets? I think sometimes we didn't make the extra pass.''
Chris Lofton led the Vols with 22 points and broke the SEC's all-time 3-point record by making five to reach 367, one more than Pat Bradley of Arkansas.
Alas, Lofton's record-breaker came with 4.6 seconds left and brought the Vols to 70-66 - too little, too late.
The loss dropped Pearl's record against Kentucky to 2-3 and marked only the fifth time in 60 games UT has lost a game it led or was tied in with five minutes remaining.
The game was tied at 54-54 at the 5-minute mark in the second half, and Lofton tied the game again at 60-60 with two free throws at the 2:14 mark.
But over the final 1:30, it was the Wildcats' free-throw show, as they went 12-of-12 from the line while UT managed only two Lofton 3- pointers, those coming in the final 12.1 seconds after the game was out of reach.
"You'd like to have them go down and earn the two points,'' Pearl said. "It seemed like there were many times we came down needing a basket after they had made free throws.''
The baskets were hard to come by outside of Lofton, who hit 7 of 14 shots from the floor, 5 of 10 from 3-point range.
The rest of the Vols combined to make only 15 of 43 shots, including 2-of-16 beyond the 3-point arc.
Pearl said he thought UT's recent stretch of games - Thursday against Vanderbilt, Saturday against Ohio State and Tuesday night's game against Kentucky - might have taken its physical toll.
The Vols had matched their largest lead of the game when a Wayne Chism dunk made it 43-33 with 17:26 left and was still up by nine when a J.P. Prince dunk left the score at 48-39 with 13:34 remaining.
The Wildcats stormed back with Patterson down low and tenacious defense. Patterson scored on consecutive possessions and Joe Crawford hit back-to-back treys to tie the game at 50-50 with 11:10 left.
After that, the lead changed hands seven times and the game was tied on five occasions before Kentucky took control from the free-throw line.
The Vols led 36-30 at the intermission behind Lofton's 14 first-half points.
UT would have held the first-half lead exclusively if not for a 6-0 Wildcats' run that gave Kentucky a 10-9 lead at the 12:56 mark.
Lofton saw to it the advantage was short-lived, driving for a layup 21 seconds later to put UT back on top, 11-10, and closed the half with a trey just before the buzzer.
Perhaps not so ironically, the last time the Vols got off to a 16-1 start was the 2000-01 season, and it was Kentucky that brought them down with a 74-64 victory in Rupp Arena.
The Vols and Wildcats meet again at Thompson-Boling Arena at noon on March 2, when former UT star Ernie Grunfeld will have his jersey retired.
The Vols' next game is at 7 p.m. Saturday against Georgia (11-5, 2-1) at Thompson-Boling Arena where UT has a 26-game home-court win streak, the fifth-longest active streak in the nation.