Tennessee had a seven-point halftime lead and a sold-out home arena rocking on Sunday afternoon.
A win over rival Kentucky and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Division was in sight.
It proved to be a case of so close, but yet, so far.
The 20th-ranked Wildcats (22-8, 10-6 SEC) hit their first five 3-point shots of the second half en route to a 64-58 win over UT (18-13, 8-8) in front of a sold-out crowd of 21,678 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“We’re close enough to almost finish second in the league,’’ Vols coach Bruce Pearl said. “But yet, we’re far enough away to finish fifth.’’
With the No. 5 seed in the SEC Eastern Division, Tennessee will play West No. 4 seed Arkansas (18-12, 7-9) in the first round of the SEC tournament at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
The Razorbacks defeated the Vols, 68-65, in both teams’ SEC opener in Fayetteville on Jan. 8.
Kentucky, the No. 2 seed in the East, receives a first-round bye before opening the SEC tournament at 3:30 p.m. Friday against the winner of Thursday’s game between Ole Miss (19-12, 7-9) and South Carolina (14-15, 5-11).
UT freshman Tobias Harris, who led the Vols with 18 points and six rebounds on Sunday, said it was an emotional locker room, especially for the six seniors who were making their final home appearance.
“It was down, and it was sad,’’ Harris said. “Such a close game, it was especially hard on our seniors.
“It was tough to send all those fans home like that.’’
Kentucky has beaten UT in six of the teams’ past seven meetings, and the loss dropped the Vols to 10-8 at home this season.
The eight home losses are the most since the 1994-1995 season, when a Kevin O’Neill-coached UT team went 7-8.
The orange-clad fans had plenty to cheer about early in Sunday’s game.
Tennessee raced to a 7-0 lead despite playing without 6-foot-10, 272-pound senior center Brian Williams, who has not practiced or played since injuring his back in a loss to Mississippi State on Feb. 26.
Scotty Hopson drove to the rim for two of his 13 points to give the Vols their largest lead of the game at 22-12 with 6:28 remaining in the half.
It was one of only two field goals in the game for Hopson, who scored nine of his points from the free-throw line as two Kentucky defenders assigned to cover him fouled out.
The Vols coasted into the half with a 29-22 lead, holding the Wildcats to their fewest first-half points of the season.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said his halftime adjustments were as much about attitude as strategy.
“I wasn’t friendly, let me say that,’’ Calipari said. “It wasn’t about executing; it was about competitive spirit.’’
The Wildcats got the message and didn’t waste time erasing the deficit. Kentucky took its first lead in the game at the 16:57 mark, when Doron Lamb hit a 3-pointer to give the Wildcats a 32-31 lead.
The lead swelled to 43-37 when Darius Miller (15 points) buried Kentucky’s fifth consecutive 3-point attempt of the second half.
Moments later, Brandon Knight (19 points) drove for two of his 17 second-half points to give the Wildcats their largest lead at 47-39 with 11:18 remaining.
The Vols rallied, going back on top, 52-51, on Kenny Hall’s hook shot at the 5:53 mark.
Kentucky answered with a 5-0 run sparked by a Terrence Jones put-back.
UT failed to draw even the remainder of the game.
Jones scored 15 points and had 12 rebounds — six off the offensive glass — as the Wildcats enjoyed a 16-7 advantage on second-chance points and a 38-31 rebounding edge.
“I’m not going to use (Williams’ absence) as an excuse,’’ Pearl said. “We’ve got enough guys out here that can rebound the ball with two hands or get on the floor.’’
Perhaps, but Kentucky’s ability to win the rebounding battles and loose-ball scrambles in the closing minutes decided the outcome.
“They played more aggressive in the second half, played a lot tougher, got to the 50-50 balls,’’ Hopson said. “They outplayed us, they out-toughed us. It’s very hard to swallow.
“We’re very close; we’re right there at the brink of it. We just have to turn that corner.’’
The Vols’ RPI ranking slipped to 36 with the loss; it’s possible UT will need to defeat Arkansas on Thursday to avoid the possibility of not receiving an NCAA tournament at-large bid.