KNOXVILLE — Tennessee could not have asked for two better looks as it attempted to mount a late comeback.
Senior guard Jordan Bowden got a wide-open look from 3-point range with two minutes, 24 seconds that would have pulled the Vols, who trailed by as much as 13, within two for the first time since midway through the first half, but he could not connect.
Junior forward Yves Pons got an equally open shot on the Vols’ next trip down the court and had the same result.
Immanuel Quickley, on the other hand, did not miss, drilling a 3-pointer moments later that sealed a 77-64 Tennessee loss to No. 15 Kentucky on Saturday inside Thompson-Boling Arena, snapping a four-game home win streak against the Wildcats.
“We had some looks at it that we would’ve liked to make, but they didn’t go down,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “It can get away from you quickly, but I thought our guys fought, I really do, and I appreciate their effort.”
Those two misses encapsulated Tennessee’s season-long offensive struggles in a 33-second span.
The Vols (13-10, 5-5 SEC) rank 297th in the nation in 3-point percentage (30.6%) and went 7-for-26 from deep versus the Wildcats (18-5, 8-2), but more importantly, they lack a reliable perimeter scorer to balance the inside presence that redshirt junior forward John Fulkerson and Pons provide.
Bowden and redshirt senior guard Lamonte Turner were supposed to fill that role, but the latter underwent season-ending surgery to alleviate problems caused by thoracic outlet syndrome in his left shoulder and the former has struggled with his shot most of the season.
Bowden shot 36.5% from behind the 3-point line in the first three years of his career but is shooting at a 26.4% clip this season. There have been outings filled with shots that rattled out, others that have been flat-out bad and few that have provided Tennessee with what it needs.
“Every shot I shoot, I think it’s going in,” Bowden said.
“If I made that, we would have been down by two and it probably would have been a different game, but I just have to continue to fight and continue to push and take my shots.”
An inability to once again hit the shot that has eluded Tennessee for most of the season was compounded by lackluster defensive effort that somehow got worse over the final 8:41.
Kentucky 6-for-7 from the floor during that stretch to cap a 54.3% shooting effort, answering every bid UT made in its comeback effort.
“We just couldn’t get a stop in late-game situations,” Barnes said. “I thought we defended them pretty well, but they put their head down and started driving, making some tough shots at the rim. They’re capable of doing that. We knew that would be something we’d have a hard time dealing with.”
Kentucky guards Ashton Hagans (10), Tyrese Maxey (15) and Quickley (18) all scored in double figures with most of their points derived from attacking the rim. Junior forward Nick Richards and freshman guard Johnny Juzang also tallied 15 and 13 points, respectively.
Freshman guard Santiago Vescovi posted a game high-tying 18 points, hitting four 3-pointers in the second half to initiate Tennessee’s rally.
Bowden chipped in with 16. Fulkerson also scored 16 points, with 10 of those coming from the free-throw line after drawing 12 fouls.
A pair of 3-point misses prevented the Vols from having an opportunity to notch a much-needed win for its fading NCAA Tournament resume.
Tennessee still has its chances over its final eight regular season games, but something is going to have to fall to keep the hope alive. It would mean the most if Bowden can make it happen.
“If I was to say something to (Bowden), I’d tell him to keep shooting,” Fulkerson said. “He’s not going to miss every shot. He just needs to shoot with confidence and keep playing hard.”
“They have confidence in me to go out there and do it,” Bowden added, “So I might as well be confident in myself and go out there and shoot the ball.”