LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Bruce Pearl era of Tennessee basketball hit rock bottom with Saturday’s 77-58 loss to Kentucky.
“As a head coach, I’ve never been so embarrassed by how I coached or how our team played,’’ said Pearl, who hadn’t lost back-to-back SEC games in more than two years. “I apologize to our fans and the University of Tennessee.
“We didn’t play with poise, we didn’t play with passion and we had no purpose. I thought there were times we quit.’’
The Wildcats improved to 19-8 and 8-4 atop the SEC East Division. UT fell to 16-10, 7-5.
“We’ve got four games left, and we have to win all four to win the conference,’’ Pearl said. “We have to beat Mississippi State (on) Wednesday to make the NCAA tournament.
“Mississippi State is a team we’re battling as one of those fourth or fifth or sixth (SEC) teams that are going to get in.’’
The Bulldogs lost 87-85 at Alabama in double overtime Saturday.
The Vols’ game in Lexington, meanwhile, was practically over before it got started.
The Wildcats ran out to a 13-0 lead to get the season-high crowd of 24,394 at Rupp Arena rocking.
UT missed its first six shots and had five turnovers before J.P. Prince scored the Vols’ first points with 11:54 left in the first half.
Kentucky did its damage largely without Jodie Meeks, who, after scoring 54 points in Knoxville, was held to 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting.
But the Wildcats had another answer. All-SEC center Patrick Patterson made his return from an ankle injury a triumphant one, scoring 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting.
With the Vols’ defense focused on Meeks — they played a diamond-and-one zone at times — Patterson scored inside and freshman Darius Miller hit from the perimeter.
Miller scored a career-high 17 points on 6-of-6 shooting and dished out a career-high six assists.
Tennessee shot just 31.7 percent — including 4-of-24 beyond the 3-point arc — and had four assists.
The Vols’ previous season low for assists was eight in their previous meeting with Kentucky in Knoxville.
“I’ve never had this issue; I’ve been a head coach how many years?’’ said Pearl, in his fourth year at UT and 17th overall as a head coach. “My teams finished first or second in their conference every year, and they played hard and unselfishly.
“This team doesn’t do either. Four assists?’’
Vols freshman Scotty Hopson, a Hopkinsville, Ky., native, was one of the rare bright spots for UT.
He scored a team-high 14 points, including a 3-pointer to open the second half and pull the Vols within 31-27.
A pair of Tyler Smith free throws 30 seconds later kept the margin at four, but Kentucky went on a 10-2 run.
A Patterson basket with 16:15 remaining capped the spurt and made it 43-31. The Vols couldn’t draw within single digits from that point on.
J.P. Prince’s foul trouble was a big reason. Prince (11 points, six rebounds) picked up his fourth foul and was forced to the bench with 15:29 remaining and UT down 43-33.
The Wildcats went on an 18-6 run after that, taking their largest lead of the game at 61-39 with 10:30 left.
Smith was double-teamed down low throughout the game, finishing with six points on 1-of-11 shooting.
“I just don’t know,’’ a despondent Smith said. “We have to just worry about us and what we need to do. I don’t know what that is.
“I don’t feel like much of a leader right now.’’
Wayne Chism, who had 10 points and eight rebounds, admits he’s worried about making the NCAA tournament.
“Coach said he’s embarrassed, and we’re all embarrassed right now,’’ Chism said. “Getting beat by almost 20 on national TV, we embarrassed Knoxville. Something felt different in this game from the start. Just that start, that’s a lack of focus, like it always is.
“I’ve never been on the edge of not making the tournament, and I don’t like it.’’
The Vols return to action at 9 p.m. Wednesday at Thompson-Boling Arena against Mississippi State (17-10, 7-5)