Cats win wild one, claim 26th SEC Tournament title

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The Kentucky Wildcats have rewarded
their faithful by adding a Southeastern Conference tournament title
to go with their regular season title.
Two down, one to go?
John Wall scored seven of his 15 points in overtime, and No. 2
Kentucky rallied from five down with 2:28 left in regulation to
beat Mississippi State 75-74 on Sunday. It was the Wildcats' 26th
Southeastern Conference tournament championship and gave them the
automatic berth to the NCAA tournament they didn't need.
The Wildcats (32-2) blew earlier chances with their fabulous
freshmen Wall and DeMarcus Cousins missing free throws and making
youthful mistakes. But they came through over the defending tourney
champs as Cousins' layup off Wall's missed 3-pointer from the right
corner beat the regulation buzzer to give them some extra time.
Now Kentucky can celebrate its first SEC tournament title since
2004, ending an interminable drought for their fans who now expect
another national championship.
Mississippi State (23-11) lost for the second time to the
Wildcats this season after leading late in regulation. The Bulldogs
blew a seven-point lead on Feb. 16, and lost that game 81-75 in
This time, the Bulldogs led 62-57 on Ravern Johnson's 3 with
2:28 left. That set up a furious finish to a game that had gone
back and forth from the opening tip.
Barry Stewart, a senior from nearby Shelbyville, Tenn., hit both
free throws with 8.2 seconds left to push the Bulldogs 'lead to
64-61. He fouled out, sending Bledsoe to the free throw line. He
hit the first, missed the second and Wall's 3-point attempt was
short. But Cousins put it back, getting the shot off before the
Officials immediately signaled that the shot counted, and Wall
and Cousins slammed to the court near the press table celebrating
with their teammates piling on as if they had won the game. They
finally went back to the bench while officials reviewed the play.
As the Bulldogs slumped and Kentucky celebrated, overtime seemed
destined to go the Wildcats' way. Even then, it wasn't easy.
Bledsoe's jumper put them ahead to stay at 71-69 with 1:20 left,
and Wall's lone 3-pointer of the game pushed it to 74-71 with 26
seconds remaining. Cousins hit two free throws with 5 seconds to go
that wound up the winning margin as Riley Benock hit a 3 just
before the buzzer to start the celebration fans had been waiting
for since Calipari was hired last spring.
It was the first time since 1952 that the SEC championship had
been decided by one point.
Bledsoe, another member of Calipari's first recruiting class,
finished with 18 points. Patrick Patterson had 15, and Cousins
finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Johnson scored 20 points to lead Mississippi State. Jarvis
Varnado added 18 and spent much of the overtime upset at the lack
of foul calls as he tried to drive to the basket. Dee Bost had 16
points, and Stewart added 11 points and 10 rebounds.
This championship had no pretense of being a neutral court, not
with Kentucky fans buying up tickets for this game even at a cost
of up to $400 for a single. The Wildcats faithful filled up to 85
percent of the arena with blue eager to end their interminable wait
for another tourney title.
But Mississippi State came to this event for a second straight
year knowing the best - and likely only - way of earning an NCAA
tournament trip was by earning the automatic berth. The Bulldogs
did it last year by winning four games in four days, and this
season they had a bye to keep them even more rested for the final.
Kentucky leads the series 86-20 and have won eight of the last
nine. The Wildcats had been even better in this tournament, going
8-2 with the Bulldogs' biggest win back in the 1996 finals when
they beat Kentucky for their first SEC title.
The Bulldogs blew a chance to beat Kentucky in Starkville on
Feb. 16. The Bulldogs led by seven with 3 minutes left only to be
taken into overtime when Wall scored five of his 18 points to rally
the Wildcats to an 81-75 win. That game was marred near the end
when upset fans threw cups filled with ice and water bottles onto
the court.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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