KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Maybe Kentucky's not tough enough for John Calipari's tastes. Maybe the Wildcats aren't yet the rough-and-rugged outfit their coach would prefer.
But in a rollicking Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday, No. 2 UK proved just tough enough to outlast Tennessee 65-62 in a bruising game that came right down to the wire.
"We have a will to win," freshman Anthony Davis said. "We're a great ball club. We never give up."
There were ample opportunities on Saturday. Tennessee (8-9, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) led by six at halftime and by as many as eight in the second half.
The Volunteers were showing off spring-semester addition Jarnell Stokes, who was making an early impact. And the folks in creamsicle colors were making the most noise in Thompson-Boling, packed with fans in both orange and blue.
The Big Blue got battered and bruised by the physical Vols. But the Cats didn't back down.
Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist made critical plays down the stretch and combined for 35 points and 20 rebounds to help Kentucky (17-1, 3-0 SEC) escape with its second-straight road thriller.
"We snuck out of there," Calipari said. "My team knows they've got to get better by the next time we play. We better get more physical or we're going to have issues."
For much of Saturday's game, the Cats had plenty of them.
The Volunteers had a 21-15 rebounding edge at halftime, and the Wildcats had almost as many turnovers (seven) as field goals (nine) in the first half.
Stokes, a freshman who graduated early from high school and was playing in his first collegiate game, had six points and three rebounds in the first half, and ripped the ball from the hands of UK sophomore Terrence Jones on one play.
But when the going got tough, Kidd-Gilchrist got going.
With his team trailing 50-47, Kidd-Gilchrist cut to the rim, took a pass from Davis and threw down a dunk while drawing a foul. His free throw tied the game with 9:28 to play, and the Cats never trailed again.
Kidd-Gilchrist put UK in front 52-50 with a pair of free throws on the Cats' next possession, and his three-pointer with 4:54 to play gave Kentucky a 58-54 cushion.
Prior to that shot, Kidd-Gilchrist was 3-for-10 from the floor.
"I wasn't having an off night," he insisted. " I've been in that gym putting in that work. (Calipari) trusts me. I just have a lot of heart too. That's a reason why I shot the ball."
Calipari said he'd have been "mad" if Kidd-Gilchrist - a 32.3 percent three-point shooter entering the game - had passed on the shot.
"There are some guys that want the ball that you don't want to want the ball," Calipari said. "There are some guys that don't want the ball and you want them to have the ball. And then there are guys, you want it and they want it, and that's the ones that go make plays. Pretty simple. And this kid was, the whole game, 'Get me the ball.'"
Kidd-Gilchrist also had a key offensive rebound and came up with loose balls at the defensive end of the floor, making the kind of hustle plays that are critical on the road.
But for all the physical fortitude Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis showed, Calipari still wants his team to show it's made of tougher stuff.
"This team has a good, solid, will to win," Calipari said. "The issue is when it gets rough and the other team plays that way, we're not negating it right now. We're playing right into their hands and we're letting them control tempo and control rebounds and second shots and push us around and set screens. We've got to, before this (season) ends, if we want to be special, we've got to be able, when a team comes out and does it, you'll all watch and say, 'That has no effect on that team anymore.' We're not there."
Still, the Cats are finding ways to win. The Cats won this week at Auburn and Tennessee in the kind of grind-it-out games they so often lost season. Kentucky's two SEC road wins this week matched its total from last season.
Kidd-Gilchrist, who finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds, made big plays down the stretch to seal Saturday's win, but he wasn't alone.
After Doron Lamb missed the front end of a one-and-one that allowed Tennessee to close within 62-60 on a Cameron Tatum three-pointer with 30 seconds to play, Darius Miller made a pair of free throws to all but ice the win.
"He's been doing this for four years," said Davis, who finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots. "He know how the crowds get late in the game, the pressure that's on him. He just stayed calm and knocked down the free throws."
That's mental toughness, and the Cats had enough of that to walk away winners. But Calipari knows it'll take more physical toughness if Kentucky wants to make a habit of winning in hostile environments.
"It starts with physical play," Calipari said. "If those guys will play more physical, they'll be more aggressive offensively, they'll make better plays. Simple. Everything happens from physical play. And (if) you negate it, you'll get and-ones, you'll be aggressive at the line, you'll be aggressive at the three, you'll get a steal, you'll get a breakout. You fly. You don't jog up and down the court. You fly. All that stuff."