LEXINGTON, Ky. — Leading a charge of cheers in a catacomb under the Rupp Arena stands Tuesday night, Jordan McRae clamored to take the floor.
As the circle of Tennessee basketball players broke loose, McRae hopped and bopped toward the light.
“Ohh, we need this one, boys, we need this one,” the junior pleaded.
The Vols needed it, but so did defending national champion Kentucky.
And a pair of reserves grabbed the game for the Wildcats.
It wasn’t Nerlens Noel. It wasn’t Archie Goodwin. It wasn’t Willie Cauley-Stein.
In the closing five minutes, two huge 3-pointers by Julius Mays and back-to-back contested shots by Kyle Wiltjer pushed Kentucky past Tennessee, 75-65, on rainy, sleety, chilly Tuesday night in Lexington.
All those future NBA players on the Kentucky roster? They cheered for Mays and Wiltjer along with the 24,033 at Rupp, where the Vols fell to 4-34 all-time.
“We just really didn’t want to fall to 0-3 (in the SEC) and then have to claw and dig our way out of this,” said McRae, after doing all his could as UT’s lone double-digit scorer with a game-high 23 points.
But now Tennessee (8-7) is indeed 0-3 in conference and floundering on a four-game losing streak.
After trailing 34-31 at halftime, the Vols took their only lead of the second half, 54-53, on a 3-pointer from the wing by Derek Reese with 7 minutes, 19 seconds left. They couldn’t close.
“We can get back in the game, but we have to start not putting ourselves in those spots over and over,” McRae said.
With Kentucky (11-5, 2-1) leading 58-56 at the 5:08 mark, Mays sandwiched a pair of McRae free throws with two cold-blooded 3s.
As the Vols tried to counter, Wiltjer hit a turn-around hook and a runner from the wing.
UT would get no closer than six the rest of the way. Kentucky hit 13 of 20 shots after halftime.
“Our guys put ourselves in position, but just didn’t capitalize,” said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin.
Wiltjer’s 17 points led four double-digit scorers from Kentucky (11-5, 2-1). Noel crammed his stat line with 12 points, nine rebounds, six blocks and four steals.
Six different Vols opened the scoring for UT before McRae canned three straight to give UT a 19-17 lead early, but Kentucky surged with an 8-0 run. The Wildcats enjoyed a 7-11 to 0-0 advantage from the free-throw line in the half.
“We definitely thought we were getting fouled, but in the second half I thought we did a good job of putting our heads down and forcing the refs to make calls,” said McRae, who made six of eight from the stripe as UT shot 11-for-17 from the line after halftime.
Battling self-induced foul trouble, UT forward Jarnell Stokes played only five second-half minutes. Nearly one year after saying, “I plan on winning, before I leave, at Rupp Arena,” Stokes scored four points and grabbed five rebounds over 15 minutes in the loss.
Standing two hours later in the same tunnel where McRae proclaimed UT’s need for a win, Martin said the Vols aren’t ready to play with desperation.
“I think we’re fine,” the coach, before racing out of Rupp to catch the last flight leaving Lexington before ice shut down the airport. “As long as we play like we’re playing now, it’s a matter of getting home, getting over that hump.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn