ST. LOUIS – By standards set in the skies of eight national titles, the Kentucky men’s basketball team’s 10-loss regular season might have disappointed. But with a fourth consecutive SEC championship, things are back to normal for the Wildcats.
Five days of conference competition culminated in Sunday’s final round matchup between second-seeded Tennessee and fourth-seeded Kentucky. After the Volunteers defeated the Wildcats in both Knoxville and Lexington this season, they came up short in St. Louis at the Scottrade Center. Tennessee fought back from a 17-point first-half deficit, but a late back-and-forth battle ended with a final score of 77-72 in Kentucky’s favor.
The Wildcats (24-10, 10-8 SEC) relied on the play of SEC Tournament MVP Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who posted 29 points and snagged seven rebounds.
“I think right now (Gilgeous-Alexander) is playing his best basketball,” Kentucky forward Kevin Knox said. “He’s one of our leaders.”
Knox finished behind Gilgeous-Alexander with 18 points and seven rebounds of his own. In the final 20 seconds, he hit two free throws to seal the Wildcats’ win.
Tennessee forward Admiral Schofield’s double-double performance (22 points, 10 rebounds) kept the Volunteers (25-8, 13-5) within reach until UK’s offensive attack proved too dominant.
SEC Player of the Year, Tennessee’s Grant Williams, opened the afternoon’s scoring with a quick inside shot off the glass. However, the lead evaporated moments later as Kentucky broke out to a 13-5 advantage, capitalizing on nine straight missed field goals from the Volunteers.
Gilgeous-Alexander contributed heavily to the early run. He converted on his first pair of three-point attempts, including a contested double-clutch heave to beat the shot clock’s quickly approaching buzzer.
Tennessee’s lousy start dragged deep into the opening frame. In the first 12 minutes, it shot just 21.1 percent from the field and turned the ball over five times.
Meanwhile, Kentucky found no issue scoring the ball. Heading into halftime, the Wildcats were shooting 50 percent from deep.
Williams and Schofield, who had dominated defenses throughout the SEC Tournament, struggled early in Sunday’s championship. Williams scored just six points in the first period, while Schofield committed three turnovers.
Tennessee found life late in the second half, however, as Schofield’s brute strength began to overwhelm Kentucky’s defense. Schofield contributed 13 points to a 15-3 run that brought the Volunteers within five points at the intermission.
“Now let’s figure out what we’re about,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said he told his team at halftime. “(Tennessee) is not done.”
The latter half of play opened just like the first: a quick and easy bucket from Williams. But this time, Tennessee avoided the drought. With 17:24 to play, a running floater from guard Jared Bone tied the game at 38 a piece. On the next UT possession, Schofield nailed his fourth three of the contest and put the Volunteers ahead for the first time since William’s opening bucket.
It didn’t take long for the Wildcats to regain their lead. Down by nine with 12:39 to play, Tennessee called a timeout to stop the bleeding.
By the eight-minute mark, Tennessee was back up 57-55 with the help of a scoreless four-minute stretch by Kentucky. But again, the advantage was short-lived.
Ahead in the final minutes of play, Kentucky buried Tennessee with timely buckets and clutch free-throw shooting.
Calipari was impressed with his young team’s performance and is optimistic moving into the NCAA Tournament.
“Every situation and experience is new to them,” Calipari said. “Really proud of them.”
Follow Ben Brandt on Twitter @bhb1227 and contact him at [email protected].