LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Only 16 days removed from its most staggering loss of the season, No. 14 Kentucky set out to right a wrong when Tennessee visited Rupp Arena on Thursday night.
On Feb. 2 in Knoxville, Kentucky blew a 21-point, first-half lead to lose to the Volunteers. Incredibly, Tennessee outscored Kentucky by 28 points over the last 25 minutes to emerge with a seven-point win.
On Thursday night, Kentucky had to wait until the second half to enjoy the payback of an 80-70 victory over the Volunteers. The win keeps the Wildcats (20-6, 10-3 Southeastern Conference) in sole possession of first place in the league.
"We didn't have the energy that we've had in a couple of games," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "But I'm telling you, they're not machines. It's hard in every game. But it was a good game."
After battling to a 36-30 halftime lead, Kentucky erupted to start the second half. The Wildcats raced out to an 18-4 run in less than four minutes. More impressive, Kentucky did it without the services of two of its post players. Alex Poythress was already out with a knee injury, and Marcus Lee needed back treatment at halftime and did not return.
Freshman guard Jamal Murray and junior forward Derek Willis filled the void with six points each, accounting for 12 of the 18. Willis hit two 3-pointers and Murray had a basket and four free throws. Kentucky shot 71.4 percent during that run, making five of seven. It followed a first half during which Kentucky hit only 39.3 percent of its shots.
"What's changed our team is Derek," Calipari said. "He made us a totally different team. He defends better and rebounds, and when he gets to where he enjoys the physical play, he becomes as good as anybody."
Behind Willis and Murray, Kentucky went on to push the lead to 67-45 with 10:45 left to play. Willis added two more 3-pointers and was 4-for-4 from beyond the arc through the first 10 minutes of the second half. Murray pushed his second-half total to nine points.
Kentucky coasted in from there for the 10-point win. Murray finished with 28 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Willis had 25 points, also on 8-of-12 shooting, including 7-of-11 from 3-point range. As a team, Kentucky shot 41.9 percent from the field but 45.8 percent from beyond the arc.
"It's really impressive the way John Calipari has his team really understanding their roles," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "Their chemistry is impressive. Each guy that goes into the game really understands what is expected of him. I think that is a sign of a team that is really starting to figure it out."
Tennessee (12-14, 5-8) was led by senior forward Armani Moore with 21 points. Senior guard Kevin Punter added 19. As a team, the Volunteers shot 37.9 percent.
Kentucky's strong second half was in stark contrast from the first half. The Wildcats opened the game by making only four of their first 12 shots, including 0-for-4 from 3-point range, and they trailed 9-8.
That was when Kentucky caught fire. A Murray 3-pointer with 10:22 left in the half finally pushed the Wildcats on top and ignited a 13-1 run to make it 21-10 over a 2:10 span. Tennessee was 0-for-2 with two turnovers during that stretch, all part of a 1-for-13 shooting sequence.
Willis had six of the 13 points on a pair of 3-pointers. Murray added five points, and sophomore guard Tyler Ulis scored two.
Tennessee, however, battled back to make it a six-point game at halftime, outscoring Kentucky 20-15 the final 10 minutes.
NOTES: Kentucky PG Tyler Ulis dished out nine assists against Tennessee, increasing his school record to 19 consecutive games with four or more assists. ... Beating Tennessee on Thursday gave Kentucky coach John Calipari his 22nd straight 20-win season. ... Since losing to Tennessee on Feb. 2 in Knoxville, Kentucky has gone 4-0 in the SEC with an average win margin of 26.7 points. ... Tennessee now has a 1-9 road record, including a 75-64 loss at last-place Missouri on Feb. 13.