Men's Basketball
Cats Claim SEC Tournament Title, Topping Tennessee 77-72

Cats Claim SEC Tournament Title, Topping Tennessee 77-72

by Guy Ramsey

ST. LOUIS – Through preseason hype and midseason struggle, all John Calipari has ever wanted is a team of players playing for each other and peaking when it counts.
After Kentucky delivered a complete performance to claim the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship, he’s got it.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats (24-10) completed their march through St. Louis on Sunday, taking down No. 2 seed Tennessee (25-8) in a 77-72 victory. The win gave UK its 31st SEC Tournament championship and fourth in a row while avenging two regular-season defeats at the hands of the Volunteers.
“Tennessee is a really good team,” Kevin Knox said. “They got us twice in the regular season. We knew this game we really wanted to get them back. We came out with energy from the start and went up with a huge lead. They made a run, and we just made some winning plays down the stretch. Next thing I know, we got the win.”
UK had a primarily blue-clad Scottrade Center crowd rolling in the early going, answering an opening Tennessee basket with a Knox 3-pointer. Soon after, UK’s lead ballooned to 10-3 and eventually 33-16 before the league co-champion Vols closed to within five points by the end of the first half with a 15-3 run.
It was game on from there.
The Vols picked up where they left off to start the second half, with Admiral Schofield – who had 22 points for the game – continuing his barrage with a 3-pointer to give Tennessee a 41-38 lead. But as they have all tournament, the Cats had the answer.
“We got up 17 and then we gave up three 3s to Schofield,” Calipari said. “I told them at halftime, ‘It’s good, because this is what’s going to happen in the next tournament. Something like this. Now let’s figure out what we’re about. And I said, ‘They’re not done.’ So they start the second half and make another run at us and I gotta call timeout right before the 16-minute mark. And this team responded.”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored five straight points to reclaim the lead and soon after found Kevin Knox for a 3-pointer to key a 14-2 run. Tennessee wouldn’t go quietly and even took back the lead at one point, but the Volunteers couldn’t pry the title away from the Cats nor SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player honors from Gilgeous-Alexander, who had 29 points, seven rebounds and three assists to lead UK to victory on Sunday.
“Shai has the ball in his hands a lot during the game, and he’s really grown over the year and be able to get his points and get other people involved,” Knox said. “I think right now he’s playing his best basketball because he’s one of our leaders. He knows he’s getting better with the decision-making. Late in the game, he made some huge plays, knocked down some free throws, and found people.”

Gilgeous-Alexander piled up gaudy averages of 21 points and 6.7 assists in three UK wins to claim the big award, but the darling of the weekend in St. Louis was Wenyen Gabriel. Gabriel joined Gilgeous-Alexander and Knox on the all-tournament team, backing up a semifinal performance of 23 points on seven made 3s by posting 12 points, six rebounds, three steals and two blocks on Sunday. His biggest play came with just over four minutes left, when he rebounded a missed free throw by Knox and scored the go-ahead put-back.
The next time down, Gabriel was one-upped by his fellow sophomore. When Gabriel’s corner 3 rimmed out, the miss caromed perfectly to Sacha Killeya-Jones as he flew toward the hoop. In one motion, Killeya-Jones dropped the hammer with a ferocious dunk to give UK a four-point lead.
The daggers would come from Killeya-Jones as well, as he came up with two big blocks in the final minutes to help close out the game. Seven made free throws in eight attempts in the final 34 seconds finished the job.
“How about Sacha?” Calipari said. “Look, PJ (Washington) and Sacha and even Quade (Green)—Quade did some good stuff today. But Sacha just had to wait his turn, and he was ready for it. Big play. That stick-back was huge.
After the confetti had fallen, the trophies were passed out and the nets were cut, it was time to head to the airport to head home and get ready for an even more important tournament. The Wildcats will now shift their attention to next week’s NCAA Tournament. UK will learn its seed and destination during the Selection Show, which airs Sunday at 6 p.m. ET on TBS.
“Every situation and experience is new to them, so you don’t really know what they’re going to do, and we need as many of these kinds of things as we can going into next weekend,” Calipari said. “So proud of them. Really proud of them.”

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