By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coach John Calipari wondered at halftime how his team would respond to the surge Tennessee had to end the first half.
Kentucky had a 27-12 lead over the Vols in the Southeastern Conference Tournament title game before Tennessee went on a 25-5 run to take a 41-38 lead. However, UK answered with its own 14-2 run and got some huge defensive plays late in the game to win 77-72.
It was the fourth straight SEC Tournament championship — and maybe the most unexpected in the Calipari era. The Cats were a No. 4 seed in the tournament and had a four-game losing streak late in the season.
However, a sensational 29-point performance by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the tournament MVP, was too much for the Vols to beat UK for a third time this season. Gilgeous-Alexander was 10-for-16 from the field and 7-for-7 at the foul line. He had seven rebounds and three assists.
“He is just silky smooth and at the end of games, he wants the ball. He doesn’t run and hide like some players do. He was sensational,” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said.
Kevin Knox wasn’t bad, either. He had 18 points and seven rebounds. Wenyen Gabriel came off his sensational 23-point effort Saturday with 12 points and six rebounds despite fouling out late in the game. Quade Green had 10 points and two assists and just one turnover in 28 minutes.
Don’t discount the play of Sacha Killeya-Jones who helped offset the absence of Jarred Vanderbilt due to an injury in all three games. He had two points but it came on a monster putback follow dunk when he just parted the Tennessee defense.
He also had three rebounds and two huge blocked shots in his 20 minutes. More importantly, he did not have a turnover.
“Sacha was like a difference maker in the game again. So proud of him. He had to wait his turn. Guys in front of him were playing great and he had to wait, but he did,” Calipari said.
Kentucky continued its intense effort that started with the win over Georgia Friday when it held the Bulldogs to 28 percent shooting. Alabama managed to hit just 38 percent from the field in the semifinals against UK. Tennessee, despite a hot streak midway of the game, finished 37 percent from the field.
“I wondered at halftime what might happen in the NCAA Tournament and somebody makes a run and then see what we do,” Calipari said. “Tennessee did and we really responded. Really proud of the guys.”
NCAA Tournament pairings come out later tonight and suddenly UK, which is likely to be a No. 5 seed, looks like a tough out for any team in the tournament whether it has Jarred Vanderbilt back or not.
Kentucky made 12 3-point shots against Alabama. It came back with seven more Sunday and also went 20-for-24 at the foul line. The Cats managed just nine assists but that’s due in large part to the way Gilgeous-Alexander can break down a defense and score on his own.
“We all know what we can do moving forward,” Green said. “We came here to win. Now let’s just see what happens going forward.”
Tennessee should be no worse than a No. 3 seed in the NCAA, so playing and winning this type of game should give UK added momentum in the NCAA.
“When you win a game like this, it pays off in the NCAA,” Vitale said. “I told you a few weeks ago not to count Kentucky out when they had some struggles. Calipari just gets his guys to play in March and they did just that here.”