LEXINGTON, Ky. — Welcome back, Bruce.
Bruce Pearl’s return to the Tennessee sideline Tuesday night didn’t go exactly as he would have scripted it.
There he was, back from his eight-game SEC banishment, patrolling the Tennessee bench in his orange sports coat. Stomping his foot, calling plays, exhorting his troops.
But to what end?
The best Pearl could manage this night was trying to pull and tug and prod his Volunteers to avoid being blown out of Rupp Arena.
There were no last-minute defensive strategies to deploy, no game-winning shots to draw up.
There was no victory to save, only face.
Kentucky did what Kentucky does — beat Tennessee in Rupp.
This time the count was 73-61, which if you study history, is about par for the course.
The Vols had gone 5-3 in Pearl’s banishment. He had high hopes for his return to grace, coming as it did as the SEC race takes a difficult turn.
The Rupp denizens greeted him with a lusty boo as he emerged from the tunnel, then another when he was introduced.
Better than sitting on your couch watching your team on a wide-screen.
“It’s always an honor to coach here,’’ Pearl said, meaning Rupp.
“Being here just feels normal,’’ he added, meaning on the bench with his team. “It was good to get yelled at. The crowd was great.
“I just wish I could have helped my team more.’’
After some sloppy opening jabs by both teams, the Wildcats raced away to a 19-point lead. Tennessee was in catch-up mode the rest of the night.
Catch-up mode is not an ideal posture at Rupp, where opponents must overcome not only McDonald’s All-Americans but crowds like this one of 24,334.
The Vols, to their credit, scrapped back to cut the deficit to 35-30 when Melvin Goins hit the opening shot of the second half.
Digging out of first-half holes has become a way of life for Tennessee. Kentucky wouldn’t let it happen this time. The Wildcats ripped off a 13-0 run to make it 48-30.
Even with 15 minutes left, that was that.
Scotty Hopson, back from a two-game hiatus, moved well enough on a sore ankle to help the cause with 11 points in 24 minutes.
Tobias Harris, however, looked like a deer-in-the-headlights freshman for once. He hit only three of nine shots, had five turnovers and only two rebounds.
Considering how consistently productive Harris has been all season, he deserves at least one pass. But the timing was rotten.
Goins broke out of a slump with 16 points and Josh Bone was a boost off the bench with 13. Both are good signs as the road takes the Vols to Florida next.
As for Kentucky, it wasn’t the freshmen phenoms who did the most damage. Junior DeAndre Liggins, usually a defensive specialist, scored 19 points and unsung senior center Josh Harrellson hustled up 16.
The key stat to cull out of the box score was Kentucky’s 38-28 rebounding advantage.
“The one area they had to win was the area of toughness,’’ Pearl said, “and I think they did that.’’
Losing the toughness battle, the Vols at least didn’t show any quit.
But they didn’t show much excellence, either. And, if there’s anything you can take to the bank in SEC basketball, it’s that excellence is required to beat Kentucky in Rupp.
The building opened in 1976-77. Tennessee has won but four times in 36 trips.
Only seven of the 32 UT defeats were single digits. Eleven of them were by 17 or more points.
Ray Mears won his first and only trip, with the Ernie & Bernie Show in full gear.
Two years later, in 1979, Don DeVoe won his first visit. DeVoe never won again in 10 tries.
Wade Houston’s six losses ranged from the routine (11 points) to the astonishing (61).
Kevin O’Neill never came closer than 17 in three skirmishes with Rick Pitino.
Jerry Green broke a two-decade drought with a 47-46 triumph in 1999, but lost by double digits his other three tries.
One of the many close calls of the Buzz Peterson Era was a 64-61 decision here in 2002. He never came close again.
Pearl, like Mears and DeVoe, broke through in his first try, in 2006.
Since, his teams have lost by 19, six, 19 and 11 points.
And now 12. Just about par for the course.
“It’s fine to be back,’’ Pearl said. “But I didn’t help the team enough to stay within range.’’
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-342-6276. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.