TAMPA, Fla. - Timely baskets in the second half and a stellar start to the game on the defensive end led ninth-ranked and No. 2 seed Tennessee to a hard fought win over fifth-ranked and No. 3 tournament seed Kentucky Saturday in the SEC Tournament semifinals, 69-62, at Amalie Arena.
Second-team All-SEC selection Kennedy Chandler scored a team-high 19 points for the Volunteers on 8-for-16 shooting. Zakai Zeigler had 11 points, while Josiah-Jordan James added 10.
Brandon Huntley-Hatfield scored eight points on 4-for-7 shooting in 22 minutes.
Uros Plavsic had six points on 3-for-4 shooting and a team-high eight rebounds.
From the 15:20 mark to the six-minute mark of the second half, Tennessee led by no fewer than eight points. Kentucky drew within six points at the 5:34 mark on a driving layup by Sahvir Wheeler, narrowing the margin to 55-49.
Tennessee, however, responded to Kentucky's threat, rattling off six straight points to push the lead back to 61-49 with 3:14 to go, capped off by a corner three from Zeigler.
With Tennessee leading by 12 points with 2:40 remaining after a pair of Chandler free throws, Kentucky made its final push.
The Wildcats strung together an 11-3 run to draw within three points at 65-62-the game's closest margin since the 16:59 mark of the first half. After Kentucky cut it to three points on two TyTy Washington Jr. free throws, Chandler missed a 3-point attempt on the other end of the court, but Santiago Vescovi grabbed the offensive rebound with 58.4 seconds left.
The first-team All-SEC selection hit one of two free throws to push the lead back to two possessions.
On the ensuing Kentucky trip down the court, Tennessee forced missed 3-pointers from Keion Brooks Jr. and Kellan Grady-the latter of which was rebounded by Zeigler, who sank three of four free throws in the final 29 seconds to seal the game.
Tennessee did not trail from the 17:23 mark of the first half on. Tennessee held Kentucky to just 27.6 percent shooting in the first half and took a 33-22 lead into the halftime break.
The Vols limited Kentucky to just eight made field goals in the opening period and held the Wildcats to 0-for-8 from 3-point range.
Tennessee opened up an early 10-point lead in the first half, pulling in front 18-8 on a Chandler 3-pointer from the left wing with 12:04 remaining in the first half.
In the first eight minutes of the game, Tennessee hit four 3-pointers-two coming from James, one from Vescovi and one from Chandler.
After taking the 18-8 lead, Tennessee made just two of its next nine shots. Despite the Vols' cold streak, Kentucky was unable to take control of the game. The Wildcats drew as close as four points, but Tennessee was able to maintain its lead for the duration of the first half. Despite its cold streak in the middle of the first half, the Vols made five of their final seven shots to end the half and closed the period on a 10-4 spurt
Chandler led Tennessee with nine first-half points, while James had eight.
STIFLING FIRST-HALF DEFENSE: Tennessee held Kentucky to just 22 first-half points-the Wildcats' fewest points in any half this season. Kentucky's 22 first-half points were tied for their fewest in the first half of an SEC Tournament game over the last 25 seasons.
CHANDLER ASCENDING SINGLE-SEASON STEALS LIST: With one steal Saturday, Kennedy Chandler brought his season total to 67-moving him into a tie for third place on Tennessee's all-time single-season steals list with Josh Richardson (2014-15), Dane Bradshaw (2006-07) and Tyrone Beaman (1982-83).
VESCOVI MOVING UP SINGLE-SEASON 3-POINTERS LIST: With two made 3-pointers during Saturday's win, Santiago Vescovi moved into seventh place on Tennessee's all-time single-season made 3-pointers list. Vescovi has 91 made threes in 32 games this season.
FULKERSON NOTCHES ANOTHER OVER CATS: With Saturday's win, super senior John Fulkerson has now appeared in eight wins over Kentucky during his career.
With the win, Tennessee (25-7) advances to Sunday's SEC Tournament championship game against Texas A&M at 1 p.m. ET. It will be televised on ESPN