Date story was published: Monday, March 14, 1988
BATON ROUGE, La. -- For those who doubted the depth of high quality teams in the Southeastern Conference this season, attending yesterday's SEC Tournament finals was mandatory.
Kentucky, the regular-season champion, and Georgia, which finished seventh, fought evenly for 40 minutes.
UK won 62-57 but never led by more than three until the final 12 seconds.
Georgia briefly was ahead 48-42, a margin cut to two in 97 seconds by the game's pivotal factor: UK's second-half offensive rebounding.
Thereafter, the difference between winning and losing was reduced to a Winston Bennett post-up shot that went in and a Toney Mack 12-foot bank shot that did not.
The combination put UK ahead 58-57 entering the final minute.
"From there on, it was their game to lose," Georgia coach Hugh Durham said. "We couldn't win it. They had to go to the free-throw line and miss."
Rex Chapman, the tournament's most valuable player, made four free throws in the final 16 seconds to set the final margin.
Between Chapman's two trips to the line, Georgia could have tied it with a three-pointer.
But Willie Anderson ended a personally dreadful tournament with an attempted crossover dribble that caught on his leg near midcourt. Traveling. Kentucky ball with 13 seconds left.
"(Eric) Manuel made a good fake at the ball," Anderson said, "so I tried a crossover dribble. It got caught."
Manuel said he had no intention of attempting a steal.
"I was just trying to keep him from streaking up court," the UK freshman said. "I didn't try for a steal because I knew Coach (Eddie) Sutton didn't want a foul."
While Manuel's subtle fake symbolized what little separated yesterday's combatants, the rewards afterward varied greatly.
UK, 25-5, received a top seed in the NCAA Tournament's Southeast Region. As they desired, the Cats were sent to Cincinnati, where they will play Baton Rouge-based Southern University in Friday's first round. Game time is 9:37 p.m.
Georgia, 19-15, had hoped that by beating the SEC Tournament's second (Auburn) and third seeds (Auburn) here earlier in the tournament, it would receive a bid. The Bulldogs were not one of the five league teams invited. Louisiana State, Vanderbilt, Auburn and Florida joined UK in the 64-team field.
Georgia came close to winning its way into the NCAA Tournament.
The game was played at the Bulldogs' preferred slow-down pace. Georgia needed to conserve its strength because this was its fourth game in four days. Only Auburn in 1985 has advanced from the first round to a tournament title.
UK, drained by Saturday's emotional 87-80 victory over home-standing LSU, cooperated.
"I sort of expected us to play flat from looking at the faces of the players, especially the younger players," said Winston Bennett, an all- tournament selection. "They seemed a little lackadaisical, like they felt we already won the tournament because Florida had lost (to Georgia Saturday)."
Anderson struggled early, missing four of his first six shots and being called for walking. That followed 2-for-21 shooting in the two previous tournament games.
UK did not take advantage. The Cats shot only 41.7 percent and let Georgia stay even on the boards (15-15).
As in the LSU game Saturday, UK left the floor trailing by five at halftime. Mack's three-pointer at the buzzer gave Georgia a 32-27 lead.
"I told our squad at the half that they hadn't come to play and that they hadn't reached the magic level we wanted," Sutton said. "I reminded them they were playing for a lot of people who spend their vacation money to come down here and for whom it is almost a life-and-death matter. I wasn't happy with the first 20 minutes, and the players weren't either."
Bennett described Sutton's halftime mood as "feisty ... very feisty.
"I don't want to name names," Bennett said, "but he pointed out players who he thought should be playing better and told them so."
On a scale of 1 to 10, with a Bob Knight tirade a 10, Sutton hit "about an eight," Bennett said.
In the second half, UK's rebounding improved markedly. The Cats outrebounded Georgia 19-8 in the second half, 9-1 on the offensive boards.
"I'd say that was the critical difference," Durham said.
Of Kentucky's first 25 second-half points, 12 came off second-shot opportunities.
Trailing 48-42, UK got an offensive-rebound basket from Rob Lock and a post-up basket from Bennett on a second-shot chance.
In the final five minutes, Kentucky's edge inside became dominance.
The Cats had taken a 56-55 lead on an Ed Davender baseline jumper.
Cedric Jenkins preserved the margin by blocking Patrick Hamilton's reverse layup. "I couldn't get in front of him to cut off the baseline," Jenkins said of Hamilton's drive, "but he cut under the basket and that gave me time to get back to the play."
UK got three shots on its possession. Chapman missed a leaner in the lane and Bennett got the rebound. Davender missed in the lane and got his own rebound. Finally Chapman missed a three-pointer and Jenkins retrieved the rebound.
The Cats worked more than two minutes off the clock before Hamilton stripped Jenkins of the ball.
Hamilton, who was named to the all-tournament team, hit both ends of a one-and-one to give Georgia a 57-56 lead with 1:23 left.
After a UK timeout, the Cats had two options: Chapman for a baseline jumper or Bennett low.
The ball went to Bennett, who powered over Mack for the go-ahead basket with 1:03 left.
Mack tried to answer with 30 seconds left. But his banker hit hard off the glass and off the rim. Manuel got the rebound.
"I felt his (Bennett's) presence and didn't want him to block it," Mack said. "It just hit too hard off the glass."
Bennett said, "When he made his move, I felt he was off-balanced, so I backed off. I didn't want to foul him." Chapman's free throws and Anderson's walk were all that stood between UK and a 16th SEC Tournament title and third since the event's revival in 1979.
At a press conference yesterday at Wildcat Lodge, Sutton said he was pleased with playing a first-round game in Cincinnati.
"I was hoping (the assignment) would be close to home," he said. "I'm especially happy to be getting the extra day's rest. I know if we had gone to Atlanta we would have had to play Thursday. People don't realize that the conference tournament takes a lot out of you. Some teams, like Vanderbilt and Auburn, didn't have to play this weekend.
We'll let the team off (today). The team's very excited about being able to stay at home and play in Cincinnati."
Sutton said the team would travel to Cincinnati by bus on Thursday. Asked about the strength of Southern University, he said, "I've said before, there are probably 50 teams that are good enough to beat you, to beat Kentucky one time. There are maybe 25 teams with a chance to go to Kansas City. The other teams that can beat you are probably not able to win three or four games in a row.
"I'd like to turn Riverfront (Coliseum) into the Rupp Arena of the North. . . . There are maybe some Xavier fans that bought tickets (in Cincinnati) but I have to believe a lot are Kentucky fans."
Southern played two SEC teams this season. It lost to Georgia 93-87 in November and 98-77 to LSU in December.
Herald-Leader staff writer Rob Kandt also contributed to this article.