PJ Washington scored 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting to help No. 5 Kentucky beat No. 1 Tennessee 86-69 on Saturday at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky.
The Wildcats' Keldon Johnson scored 19 points, and Tyler Herro added 15 points and 13 rebounds.
Jordan Bone scored 19 points for the 23-2 Volunteers, who are tied for the SEC lead with LSU at 11-1. The 21-4 Wildcats aren't far behind with a 10-2 conference mark.
PJ Washington Emerges as SEC Player of the Year Favorite
Tennessee walked into a lion's den on Saturday and couldn't find its way out. The Rupp Arena crowd was ruthless all night, and the Wildcats' physicality proved to be too much for the Vols on the glass and in the paint.
Kentucky forward PJ Washington was the catalyst for that effort, and in turn, he became the front-runner for the SEC Player of the Year.
The hype had been building in the seven games leading into Saturday, with Washington averaging 20.7 points on 52.0 percent shooting and 8.6 rebounds.
Against Tennessee, Washington simply could not be stopped down low. He shot 75 percent from the field and helped UK outscore UT 36-20 in the paint. The Wildcats also shot 29-of-53 from the field against a Vols team that was tied for 13th in defensive field-goal percentage allowed at 39.0 percent before the UK game.
Kyle Tucker of The Athletic noted how well Washington has been playing recently:
And Aaron Torres of Fox Sports Radio noted how Washington's recent play makes them competitive against the rest of Division I:
Aaron Torres @Aaron_Torres
Before the season I picked Kentucky to win the title, because I thought PJ Washington would an SEC Player of the Year type guy. In his last three games, Washington is averaging 21 points and 10 boards per game. If Kentucky gets THIS PJ Washington, not many teams beating them
The scariest part of Washington's game may be his newfound offensive versatility. He's making 43.1 percent of his three-pointers compared to 23.8 percent last season. At 6'8" and 228 pounds, he's now able to dominate all over the floor, which helps spread out a potent Wildcats offense.
Before the game, Washington told Bilas that the difference between last year and this year is his "confidence." Washington is now Kentucky's clear go-to guy this season, especially in the last eight games with him averaging 14.3 field goals per contest compared to 8.1 for his first 17.
Washington's biggest competitor for the SEC Player of the Year award is Tennessee forward Grant Williams, who won the honor last year. Williams has been sensational with 19.4 points and 7.4 rebounds entering Saturday, but momentum is on Washington's side right now. Williams has averaged 13.3 points per game in his last four, while Washington is one of the hottest players in the country.
Round 1 also went to Washington on Saturday, as Williams and any other Vol could not stop Kentucky down low. Williams finished with 16 points.
Of course, Williams is the clear second choice, but Washington gets the current edge thanks to his streak of great play. With the postseason arriving in less than a month, this run couldn't come at a better time.
Despite Loss, Tennessee Still Deserves No. 1 Seed over Kentucky
Before the game, the ESPN College GameDay crew debated the merits of Tennessee or Kentucky earning the NCAA tournament's hypothetical No. 1 seed if the season were to end today. Duke, Virginia and Gonzaga have their spots sewn up right now, but Jay Bilas of ESPN saw the UT-UK game as a play-in for the last No. 1 seed.
That's certainly a fair argument, especially with Tennessee at No. 1 and UK ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press poll leading into that matchup.
And if you only watched the Saturday game and had to choose which team would be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, then Kentucky would be the easy choice.
But there are a few other factors to consider.
First, Tennessee's best win came against one of those No. 1 seeds in Gonzaga, and that was on a neutral floor. The Vols also took down No. 16 Louisville.
Second, Tennessee has only two losses: one to No. 14 Kansas and one to No. 5 Kentucky.
Third, Tennessee had simply been dominating opponents leading into Saturday. The Vols had beaten 14 of their past 16 opponents by 10 or more points. Granted, the SEC isn't as strong as in previous years with just three Top 25 teams, but that's not an easy task.
Kentucky's main blemishes are its losses to Alabama and Seton Hall, each of whom resides outside the Top 25. Duke also beat UK by 34 earlier this season.
Of course, the Wildcats' win over Tennessee is the team's most impressive feather in its cap. They also beat Kansas and are even ranked higher than the Vols in the Sagarin ratings.
But if you're looking at both teams' entire bodies of work, then Tennessee gets the slight edge over Kentucky as of this moment.
That may not end up mattering much, as these two teams are meeting in Knoxville on March 2 and could face off in the SEC tournament. If Kentucky wins either (or both) of these games, then it's much harder to back Tennessee as a No. 1 seed.
But as of now, Tennessee had an understandably bad night in one of the toughest places to play in the country, against a Top Five team no less. The Vols deserve a pass.
Both teams play on Tuesday. Tennessee will host in-state rival Vanderbilt, and Kentucky will travel to Missouri.