Knecht's 40 not enough as Tennessee basketball falls to Kentucky

Tennessee basketball drops the final game of the regular season with 85-81 loss to the Kentucky Wildcats.
Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht (3) is defended by Kentucky guard D.J. Wagner (21) and Kentucky guard
Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht (3) is defended by Kentucky guard D.J. Wagner (21) and Kentucky guard / Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY

Tennessee basketball honored the seniors on Saturday. The Vols have a strong leadership corps on this year's team and came into Saturday's matchup riding a seven-game winning streak with wins over Auburn, Alabama, and South Carolina. Their wins over the best the SEC has to offer helped them clinch an SEC Championship earlier this week.

The final game in the Vols' gauntlet challenge came against their rival, the Kentucky Wildcats. The Vols ended the regular season with an 84-81 loss to the Wildcats in front of another strong crowd in Thompson-Boling Arena. The Vols struggled offensively, while Kentucky couldn't miss down the stretch.

Tennessee started the game ice-cold on the offensive end of the court. In the game's first five minutes, Tennessee shot one-for-eight from the field. The lone shot made was a Dalton Knecht three-pointer, which set the tone for Tennessee offensively.

The Vols defense allowed Kentucky to settle in offensively as the Wildcats also got off to a slow start early. Kentucky tried to match Tennessee's physicality and quickly got themselves into foul trouble. The Vols couldn't quite take full advantage of Kentucky's foul trouble, though, as they struggled with shooting throughout the game.

While Kentucky got into early foul trouble, they were still able to dominate the game within the game down low. Kentucky outperformed Tennessee in the paint for much of this game. The Cats' big men were able to pressure Tennessee down low and getting a hand on shots close to the basket.

The Wildcats ended the game with nine blocked shots. There seemed to be moments when Tennessee couldn't do anything but block their shots in the paint. Jonas Aidoo was the only Vol to record a stat in the blocks column, with five blocked shots of his own.

Kentucky slowly built their lead throughout the first half, eventually getting to an 11-point lead, the largest of the first half. This was before Knecht decided to get NBA Jam hot from deep. Knecht and the Vols were able to bring the deficit to within four at the end of the first half.

The Vols made just eight shots in the first half. Knecht was responsible for five of the eight shots made. Without Knecht's late first-half tear, the Vols could have faced a double-digit deficit at halftime.

Tennessee started the second half much better offensively than they did in the first half. The Vols matched Kentucky early in the second half. The Wildcats didn't let that slow them down and continued to power through Tennessee's defense, while the Vols offense couldn't quite keep up with the Cats.

Kentucky reached its biggest lead of the game, 14 points, halfway through the second half, putting Tennessee on the ropes the rest of the way. The Vols battled back, though, and got the lead back down to four after back-to-back Knecht and Zakai Zeigler three-pointers.

This gave the Vols new life, but Tennessee's defense couldn't stop Kentucky down the stretch in the second half. Reed Sheppard was too much for Tennessee's defense. The freshman guard could not miss and finished the game with 27 points.

It seemed like Knecht finally met his match with another shooter that caught fire. Knecht continued to shoot and score throughout the game, but it wasn't enough for the Vols to win in the end. Knecht finished the night with a career-high 40 points.

Knecht couldn't get much help down the stretch from other scorers besides the occasional Zeigler basket. Even then, no one not named Knecht or Zeigler could score throughout the night. The Vols' other seven players to check in tonight combined for a total of 24 points. Without Knecht's 40 points, the Vols would have been nowhere close to competitive offensively.

Toward the end of the game, it looked like Knecht was on an island offensively. Whether he held onto the ball or his teammates found him around the perimeter, it seemed like the ball was always in his hands. Heck, he scored 40. The ball shouldn't go into possession without touching his hands, but his teammates have to do a better job getting involved offensively and taking some attention off him.

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While Saturday's performance was not ideal, it should not take away from the special season this team has had to this point. The Vols are still your SEC Champions and hold a one-seed in the SEC Tournament, which was done with the fourth-toughest schedule in the country. Tennessee also still currently sits with a projected one-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Vols are not done.