KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell is surprised the seventh-ranked Wildcats didn't get docked two losses for the way they played against No. 13 Tennessee on Monday night.
Even with the poor shooting and defensive struggles, the 91-54 loss to the Lady Volunteers only counts once. That means Kentucky will remain in control of the Southeastern Conference.
"It probably should count as more than one loss, but it only counts as one," Mitchell said. "We are leaving town in first place, and we need to find some way to get it together and see if we can earn a victory. We'll have to see what we're made of and see if we can bounce back."
Tennessee (18-7, 9-3) never trailed. The Lady Vols shot 59 percent while holding Kentucky to 33.3 percent and held a 45-27 rebounding advantage.
Meighan Simmons hit consecutive 3-pointers to make it 10-2 and blocked a 3-point attempt by Keyla Snowden at the other end, one of six rejections by Tennessee in the first half.
The Wildcats (21-4, 10-2) pulled within 21-16 on a steal by Azia Bishop and a transition layup by Bernisha Pinkett with 9:20 in the first half, but they wouldn't get any closer. The loss marked the first time this season Kentucky has lost consecutive games.
Vicki Baugh scored on a putback and was fouled by Bishop. She missed the free throw but charged through the lane and converted the rebound that put Tennessee up 29-18.
Those baskets launched a 14-0 run by the Lady Vols across a 3:21 stretch. During that time, Kentucky missed two free throws and two shots from the field and turned the ball over four times.
"When the ball wasn't going in the basket, I feel like as a team we got discouraged," guard Bria Goss said. "We needed to see that as adversity, which we go through every day, and fight back stronger. We just needed to bounce back."
Tennessee led 46-28 at halftime after shooting 60 percent. Both teams had 10 turnovers in the first half, but the Lady Vols had scored eight more points off giveaways than the Wildcats.
The 18-point halftime deficit was Kentucky's largest of the season, but it only grew worse in the second half, with Tennessee's lead reaching 40 points with 4:37 to play.
Simmons led Tennessee with a season-high 25 points. Shekinna Stricklen scored 18, and Glory Johnson added 10.
Goss led the Wildcats with 15 points, and Pinkett finished with 10. A'dia Mathies, who scored 34 points in the last meeting with Tennessee, had 12 points before taking an elbow to the face and leaving the game with 9:26 to play.
"We're just checking to see if anything's in bad shape," Mitchell said. "Hopefully that's not too bad, and hopefully she'll be able to bounce back. She's a pretty tough kid."
Kentucky hadn't played since a 61-51 loss at LSU on Feb. 5 snapped a 10-game winning streak but remains alone in first place in the SEC with two weeks left in the season. Tennessee is one game behind in second place and would have had a shot at pulling into a tie with the Wildcats but lost 93-79 at Vanderbilt on Thursday.
Kentucky snapped Tennessee's 36-game SEC winning streak with a 61-60 victory in Lexington on Jan. 12.
That game turned out to be part of an uncharacteristic 5-4 stretch for Tennessee. After losing to the Wildcats, the Lady Vols dropped games at Notre Dame and Vanderbilt and lost to South Carolina at home, their first SEC home loss in nearly four years.
"You can look at how we played those two (SEC losses) and see how we played against Kentucky and wonder, 'What team is this?'" associate head coach Holly Warlick said. "That's the team we're confident we need to see all the time, and that's the team that can be there. They've just got to carry over the things we do in practice to the game."
During that stretch, Stricklen, a preseason All-America and Tennessee's leading scorer for the season, has shot just 41.8 percent while the usually sharpshooting Simmons has shot just 37.2 percent.
This time, Simmons was 10 of 17 from the field and had three 3s, while Stricklen was 8 for 12.
"When we run the ball, it gives us energy, it gives us a lot of confidence," Warlick said. "When Shekinna Stricklen's sprinting down the floor and we shoot layups, and Glory Johnson's shooting layups, we're a great team. It starts with our defense, and I thought our defense started everything for us and got us playing."