KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Kentucky coach John Calipari feared the possibility of a letdown Tuesday night but he started feeling more confident when the Wildcats built a 21-point lead over Tennessee.
His first instinct proved correct.
Kevin Punter Jr. scored 27 points and Armani Moore added 18 points and 13 rebounds as Tennessee erased a 21-point deficit in an 84-77 upset.
The Wildcats' collapse came three nights after a 90-84 overtime setback at No. 7 Kansas, which was ranked fourth at the time.
"We've got to do some soul-searching," Calipari said. "Individuals and as a staff, we've got to look at ways we can help this team get better and demand more, more winning plays. We are what we are right now."
Tennessee's rally represented a stunning turn of events for a team that had lost its last two games despite leading by at least 14 points in the second half of each. The Volunteers (11-11, 4-5 Southeastern Conference) trailed 34-13 with less than 6 minutes left in the first half.
"We kind of joked around about it, we actually said we liked it better being down instead of being up at the half," Moore said. "It kind of makes us a whole lot hungrier."
Tennessee's media guide doesn't include a list of its biggest comebacks ever, but athletic department spokesman Tom Satkowiak said he believes the 21-point deficit was the largest margin the Vols have erased in a victory since at least December 2006. This matched the seventh-biggest comeback by any Division I team this season, according to STATS LLC.
"We had them down by 21 — and they came back and beat our brains in," Calipari said. "They ended up beating us by 30 in about 25 minutes — and it could have been 50. We've got a ways to go."
Kentucky (16-6, 6-3) got 21 points from Jamal Murray and 20 from Tyler Ulis. Alex Poythress scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half and Isaiah Briscoe added 10 points.
The score was tied 70-all until Robert Hubbs III made a free throw with 5:04 left to start a 7-0 run that put Tennessee ahead for good. Kentucky couldn't cut the margin below three points the rest of the way.
Kentucky seemed on the verge of putting this game out of reach early. But after trailing by 21, Tennessee used a 10-0 run to get within striking distance and cut Kentucky's lead to 42-36 by halftime.
The Vols pulled ahead on Detrick Mostella's 3-pointer with 14:09 left. Kentucky regained the lead when Ulis and Derek Willis hit 3-pointers on the next two possessions, but Tennessee kept clawing back and regained the lead at 65-63 on Hubbs' basket with 9:41 remaining.
"I kind of felt their tension and frustration," Punter said.
Although Kentucky tied the score at 70-all, the Wildcats wouldn't lead again.
Kentucky: The Wildcats are 151-68 in this series. Kentucky has lost to Tennessee more than any other team.
Tennessee: Kyle Alexander, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward, made his third career start as Hubbs moved to the bench. Alexander started for the first time since Dec. 29. Tennessee had been using a starting lineup with nobody taller than 6-5.
"There's not a better guy in the business than John (Calipari)," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "And one of the hardest things as a coach when you win a game, is to have to go down and shake your friend's hand. But like he said, if you're going to lose, you want to lose to a friend that you really respect. I can't tell you how much respect I have for him and his program and what he did."
This marked the 18th time an unranked Tennessee team has beaten a ranked Kentucky squad. ... Tennessee outrebounded Kentucky 37-36. Kentucky is 1-5 when it gets outrebounded. ... Tennessee was 30 of 34 on free throws. Tennessee's 34 attempts matched the second-highest total the Wildcats have allowed this season. Kansas attempted 47 free throws on Saturday.
Kentucky: hosts Florida on Saturday.
Tennessee: is at Arkansas on Saturday.