LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Makayala Epps put No. 12 Kentucky on her shoulders before teammates joined in a stirring comeback past 19th-ranked Tennessee.
The Wildcats then sweated through a late lull that gave the Lady Volunteers several chances to mount their own furious rally that fell just short because of a few bounces off the rim. All of which made the celebration by Kentucky players and fans even sweeter when the horn sounded on a hard-earned victory.
Epps scored 14 of her 23 points in the third period as the Kentucky women rallied from a 10-point deficit before holding off No. 19 Tennessee 64-63 on Monday night.
"We were down seven (at halftime) but we weren't deflated about it because we knew what we were doing wrong," said Epps, who scored 17 in the second half. "We made some changes at halftime and coach (Matthew Mitchell) told us to go out there and have fun — a lot of fun."
The Wildcats certainly weren't enjoying life in the first half.
Kentucky (15-3, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) looked down and out trailing 35-28 at the break before Epps shifted momentum by pushing a quicker tempo resulting in the Wildcats' first seven points of the period. She kept going to the basket to help Kentucky take a 49-44 lead into the fourth that reached 10 before a wild finish.
"Makayla really, really took over in the third quarter," Mitchell said. "That was a huge development for our team. ... I was proud of her in the second half. She played with a lot more confidence."
Tennessee (12-7, 3-3 SEC) stormed back within a basket several times thanks to Te'a Cooper, who made consecutive baskets and had a chance to tie the game with 10.7 seconds left. But she made just one of two free throws, about 20 seconds after Andraya Carter also missed one of two and committed a foul in a scramble for the rebound.
Two missed free throws by Kentucky's Batouly Camara with four seconds left gave Tennessee another opportunity, but the final horn sounded before Cooper could get off a final shot that hit the rim.
"I thought I had enough time but obviously I didn't," said Cooper, who had 18 points. "I was trying to draw a foul and get the shot off but it didn't work."
Kentucky's Janee Thompson added 15 points including five points down the stretch that proved critical as the Wildcats missed shots and continuously gave Tennessee opportunities. But Kentucky survived to end a four-game slide against the Lady Vols.
Diamond DeShields added 13 and Mercedes Russell 12 for Tennessee, which led by as many as 10 before going cold in the pivotal third period.
Kentucky gained a hard-earned victory despite 36 percent shooting overall. But the Wildcats committed just 10 turnovers —which Mitchell described as "walking on water" — while forcing the Lady Vols in 21 that led to 18 points.
Tennessee made 23 of 55 (42 percent) and outrebounded the Wildcats 41-38 but lost for the third time in four games.
"I thought we had great looks," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "I thought we were going to win the basketball game. We had our chances. We had great shots. We had great looks. We didn't knock them down."
Tennessee: Warlick remains two wins away from her 100th career coaching victory.
Kentucky: The Wildcats outscored Tennessee 34-16 in the paint. ... Kentucky improved to 10-1 at home this season, including wins over Louisville and Duke at nearby Rupp Arena. They're also 3-1 against ranked teams this season.
Tennessee: Visits No. 13 Mississippi State on Thursday.
Kentucky: Hosts Vanderbilt on Thursday.
Coaches from both schools wore purple and players wore special T-shirts for participation in "We Back Pat" week, an initiative to raise awareness of The Pat Summitt Foundation and its work to fight Alzheimer's disease. Summit, the Hall of Fame former-Lady Volunteers coach, was diagnosed with the disease in 2011.
This story has been corrected to show that Mississippi State is ranked No. 13, not No. 10.