KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- John Calipari could have used a thesaurus at halftime Sunday of Kentucky’s come-from-behind 64-58 victory over Tennessee.
He was looking for different ways to call his Wildcats soft.
“It wasn’t friendly. I went right down the room,” Calipari said. “I didn’t need to talk offense.
“It’s called competitive spirit.”
And only one player wearing blue had it in the first half -- junior DeAndre Liggins.
He was spared from Calipari’s halftime tirade, which didn’t pull any punches.
Clearly, Calipari was tired of seeing his Wildcats go into a fetal position any time they ventured away from Rupp Arena. They were 1-6 on the road in the SEC heading into Sunday’s game at Thompson-Boling Arena, which rocked a little louder each time a Kentucky jumper in the first half clanged off the rim.
Liggins was the exception for the Big Blue. Not only did he score all six of his points in the first half and grab five of his six rebounds, but he was a royal pain in the you-know-what the entire game for Tennessee’s Scotty Hopson, who’d been one of the hottest scorers in the SEC coming into the game.
When Liggins wasn’t draped all over Hopson or hounding his every shot, he was in Hopson’s mug reminding him that he was going to be there all day.
He was until fouling out with 3:24 to play.
“Dre came in and that’s all he wanted to do, guard that guy,” Kentucky’s Terrence Jones said. “He provided a lot of energy.”
Hopson, who had scored 19 or more points in six consecutive games, was held to 13 in this one -- shooting just 2-of-10 from the field.
“We grabbed [Hopson] a couple of times, and it got heated,” Calipari said. “See, DeAndre was the only one who went out to say, ‘I’m ruining your day. This is you, and this is me.’
“You’ve got to take those personal challenges … if you’re a competitor. If you’re not, you slap him on the butt. He scores. You score, and you’re like, ‘I didn’t get my butt kicked. I scored six on him, and he only scored 12 on me.’
“You’ve got to get away from that, and I thought we did in the second half. It got nasty.”
The Wildcats, who trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half, turned it into what Calipari called a “roughhouse” affair in the second half.
A somber Hopson conceded that the Vols backed down.
“They out-played us and out-toughed us,” Hopson said. “It’s very hard to swallow.”
And whereas Liggins was the one who kept Kentucky in it in the first half, freshman point guard Brandon Knight was the difference in the second half.
Knight scored 17 of his 19 points after the break and turned it over only once. What’s more, Darius Miller recovered from his first-half benching to make four of his six shots in the second half, and even more importantly in the eyes of Calipari, showed some toughness that was sorely lacking in the first half.
For that matter, the whole team did. Calipari said it was the first time all season that the Wildcats were able to snap out of a funk in which they were being pushed around early only to come back and do the pushing themselves in the second half and win the game.
“You’ve got to fight. You’ve got to have some type of viciousness to you,” Calipari said. “We’re just learning. This was a big step. I told them, ‘We grew up today. We learned a lot.’ ”
Kentucky (22-8, 10-6 SEC) clinched the Eastern Division’s No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament, which gives the Cats a bye. They will play the winner of the Ole Miss-South Carolina game on Friday at 3:30 p.m. ET.
But Calipari was thinking more in terms of the bigger picture Sunday. He thinks winning at Tennessee will improve UK’s seed in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats have now won five of their past six games, including three in a row.
“The last three games, we showed what we are,” said Calipari, who thinks his team could climb as high as a No. 3 seed if they win the SEC tournament. “Everybody knows the NCAA tournament’s not played on the road. It’s played at neutral sites, and everybody knows how this team has played in those environments and done well, so I think this moves us up.”
For Tennessee, it’s just the opposite.
The Vols (18-13, 8-8) now have to play on Thursday's first day of the SEC tournament, when they will meet Arkansas at 7:30 p.m.
With their RPI in the 30s and a No. 3 strength of schedule, the Vols remain optimistic about their tournament chances. Still, a loss to the Hogs in Atlanta could make things dicey come Selection Sunday. That would give them seven losses in their past 10 games.
There’s also the bigger-picture question for Tennessee when you consider the NCAA cloud hovering over coach Bruce Pearl and the Vols’ impending date with NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in June.
Was Sunday’s game the last one Pearl will coach in Thompson-Boling Arena?
If it was, it won’t be one anybody will remember fondly. In fact, the Kentucky series has not created many fond memories, period, for the Vols lately. They’ve lost six of their past seven to the rival Wildcats.
“To leave second place [in the SEC East] on the table and not finish with Kentucky is disappointing,” Pearl said. “To not be able to add to our history by getting swept by Kentucky is disappointing.
“I do feel it’s a benchmark I should be judged on, and I obviously have not done my job in our rivalry with Kentucky.”