LEXINGTON, Ky. — Again Tennessee entered the stretch of an SEC road basketball game with a chance to win.
Again the Volunteers were unable to finish the drill.
This time Kentucky's Julius Mays and Kyle Wiltjer delivered the daggers to orange-clad hearts and sent Tennessee to a familiar ending at Rupp Arena in the Wildcats' 75-65 win Tuesday night that gave the Vols their first 0-3 league start in 15 seasons.
"Kind of like that last three games, it's just been key plays down the stretch that we have to make in order to win, and we haven't done that," Jordan McRae said after he again led Tennessee in scoring with 23 points. "There's not a particular reason. We definitely went into the game knowing we could win, and like I said, down the stretch our team has to make key stops and better decisions."
After turnovers doomed the Vols at Alabama on Saturday, defense was their downfall Tuesday. Kentucky made its last eight shots after freshman Derek Reese's 3-pointer put the Vols up 54-53 with 7:19 remaining.
Mays and Wiltjer inflicted the most significant damage.
A graduate student who played at North Carolina State for two years and averaged 14 points per game at Wright State last season, Mays sank two 3-pointers from nearly identical spots on the left wing near Kentucky's bench to give the Wildcats (11-5, 2-1) a 64-58 lead.
Wiltjer took it from there, as the lone leftover from last year's national championship team made two awkward shots and split a pair of free throws to push the lead to seven.
Freshman Nerlens Noel's dunk with 58 seconds left was the finishing touch, though Tennessee added to its late-game misery when Josh Richardson badly missed two free throws after a flagrant foul and Trae Golden's layup spun out.
"They did a good job of making plays," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I thought our guys put ourselves in position and just didn't capitalize. I thought we were aggressive."
Despite last season's 25-point loss -- and it wasn't that close -- the Vols hardly seemed fazed by the aura of Rupp. Tennessee jumped to a 15-12 lead and responded to Kentucky's 8-0 spurt by regaining a lead late in the first half. Though they shot 56 percent, the Vols made zero trips to the free-throw line and turned the ball over nine times before halftime.
When Kentucky pushed its lead back to eight in the second half, McRae pulled his team back into the game with three jumpers and finished 8-of-18 shooting and 6-of-8 on free throws.
"Offensively I like what I've gotten from him," Martin said. "I didn't think he did a very good job defending. They did a good job of attacking him.
"I think that's the next phase for him. We talk about it a lot, and he understands that. He's taking pride in defending, but I think that's the next step for him."
Though he scored just two points, Yemi Makanjuola may have been Tennessee's impact player. The backup sophomore center from Nigeria fouled out with 6:47 remaining, and the Wildcats didn't miss a shot after that point.
"We were rolling with him because he was playing so well," Martin said. "Once he went out of the game, we couldn't get a consistent stop. We were riding with him down the stretch until he fouled out because of how he was playing and how he was competing."
Added McRae: "When he's not in the game, it's tough."
Tough would describe the nights of struggling forward Jarnell Stokes, who managed just four points and five rebounds in 15 foul-plagued minutes, and Golden, the mercurial point guard who committed five turnovers to go with his seven points, four rebounds and six assists.
Wiltjer, a 6-foot-8 forward with a smooth jump shot, made two 3s in the first half to set the tone for his 17-point night, but Noel affected the game much like eventual top NBA draft pick Anthony Davis did for Kentucky last year with 12 points, nine rebounds, four steals and six blocks.
The hole for the Vols, who entered the week 99th in the NCAA's official RPI, is now bigger.
"You've got to just get over the hump," Martin said. "As long as the effort is there, then you're fine. If you're lacking the effort and lacking the focus, then you have a major issue.
"One thing about these guys is they continue to bring their hard hat to work every day, so things will definitely turn around."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...