ATLANTA — With Kentucky trying to snap a two-game losing streak to Florida as the two teams meet today in the finals of the SEC Tournament, when was the last time UK lost to a team three times in one men’s basketball season?
The answer: Tennessee in 1978-79.
That was a rebuilding year after UK lost Jack Givens, Rick Robey, James Lee and Mike Phillips off its 1978 national championship team. The Cats finished 16-10 in the regular season with a 10-8 SEC record, good enough for sixth place in the conference.
It was also the first year since 1953 the SEC held a post-season tournament in Birmingham. Because of an odd seeding format with the 10-team league, Kentucky had to win three games just to reach the finals. It beat Ole Miss 82-77 in the first game, which was played on February 28.
The Cats then beat Alabama 101-100 in what was a classic for the first-year renewal of the event. Kentucky shot 68.3 percent from the field to beat C.M. Newton’s club. Truman Claytor scored 25 points, Kyle Macy 22 and Dwight Anderson 19 to overcome a 38-performance by Bama’s Reginald King.
UK’s matchup with regular-season champ LSU (14-4) in the semifinals did not start well when Anderson, a ridiculously fast freshman, broke his wrist in the opening minute. But Macy scored 29 and Claytor added 20 as the Cats upset Dale Brown’s team 80-67 to reach the finals against Tennessee.
Don DeVoe’s Vols already owned two wins over the Cats on the way to a 12-6 conference mark. Tennessee beat UK in Lexington 66-55 on Jan. 20, 1979 behind 20 points from Reggie Johnson. Then on Feb. 17 in Knoxville, the Vols rolled to a 101-84 win behind 23 points from Terry Crosby.
At the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center, Kentucky led 44-37 at the half. Tennessee rallied to send the game to overtime where UK, playing its fourth game in four days, ran out of gas, losing 75-69. Gary Carter led Tennessee with 22 points and nine rebounds. Playing without Anderson, UK did get 27 points from Claytor, but an obviously drained Macy was held to just 10 points. That did not stop Macy from being named the tournament’s MVP.
(I was a student at UK back then working for the Kernel and made the trip to Birmingham to cover the tournament.)
Kentucky went on to the NIT where it lost a first-round game to Clemson at Rupp Arena 68-67 in overtime.
Here we are 35 years later and UK will be trying to avoid a three-peat of sorts. Florida beat UK 69-59 at Rupp Arena before ESPN’s College GameDay on February 15. Then just eight days ago, on March 8, Florida trounced the Cats 84-65 in Gainesville to wrap up an 18-0 regular season in conference play.
They say it’s hard for one team to beat another team three times in a season. Today at 3:15 p.m., we’ll see if that’s true this time.
Hat tips to Steve Moody, who was also thinking along the same lines of UK history and to the invaluable web site Big Blue History.
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