Kentucky guard Jodie Meeks was virtually unstoppable, setting the Wildcats’ and the Thompson-Boling Arena scoring record with 54 points as the Big Blue rolled.
Kentucky (13-4, 2-0 SEC) scored a 90-72 victory over No. 24 Tennessee (10-5, 1-1) Tuesday night to claim early-season SEC East Division superiority.
Former LSU standout Chris Jackson held the previous arena record, scoring 49 points on the Vols on Feb. 10, 1990, two years after UT moved into the spacious facility. Dan Issel had the previous Kentucky scoring record with 53 points on Feb. 7, 1970, against Ole Miss.
Many of the 20,474 in attendance had filed out by the time Meeks put the finishing touches on his masterpiece.
The 6-foot-4 sharpshooter, whose previous career-high was 46 points earlier this season against Appalachian State, was 15-of-22 shooting from the field, 10-of-15 beyond the 3-point arc and a perfect 14 of 14 from the free throw line.
“After I hit four or five threes in the first half, my confidence got bigger,’’ said Meeks, who surpassed his scoring averaged of 24.2 points by halftime with 26. “I was just trying to do everything I could to help us win the game.’’
Tyler Smith led UT with 19 points, and Wayne Chism had 18 points and nine rebounds.
UT coach Bruce Pearl said he tried a variety of defenders on Meeks.
“He (Meeks) did anything he wanted to do out there,’’ Pearl said. “We wanted to deny him the ball and put so much ball pressure on him that he had to go to the rim. He did that the first play of the game, but he didn’t have to do that after that.
“Defensively we tried to guard him as a team. None of our guards could guard him.’’
UT battled back from 16 down in the second half to close to within 71-64 on Chism’s three-point play with 6:52 left.
But the Vols missed an opportunity to cut further into the lead after forcing a turnover when Chism missed a 3-pointer from the corner.
Meeks came back down court to drill a 3-pointer that made it 74-64 with 5:25 left. Then Meeks hit another 3-pointer on the Wildcats’ next possession, and then he hit three free throws the next time down, giving him 51 points and Kentucky a 80-64 lead with 4:11 left.
It’s the Vols’ first SEC home loss since Kentucky scored an 80-78 win here on March 1, 2006, and it’s the first time Pearl has lost an SEC home opener in his four years with the program.
Kentucky held a 41-37 lead at halftime, and it would have been worse had Smith not erupted for nine points in the final 2:19.
Smith, who was 5-of-14 shooting with two rebounds in the game, didn’t score until he hit a trey at the 6:20 mark to pull UT within 29-26.
Meeks answered with a trey to spark a 10-2 run that he also capped with a three-point play to give the Wildcats their largest lead of the half at 39-28.
Smith got busy with his nine-point burst while Meeks — who else — scored on a pair of free throws to finish UK’s first half scoring.
The Vols return to action at 6 p.m. Saturday when they play host to South Carolina.