NASHVILLE — Nerves of steel and grace under pressure, as Hemingway defined courage, contributed to Kentucky's 75-74 overtime victory over Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference Tournament finals Sunday.
So did good fortune.
The Cats seldom practice how to intentionally miss a free throw, get the rebound and score a desperately needed two points. "We haven't practiced it every day," Perry Stevenson said. "You don't expect that to always happen."
So the Cats practiced that, "every now and then," Stevenson said.
The objective is not out of an X-and-O textbook. "Get a good bounce and let our athleticism take over," Stevenson said.
With UK down 64-61 and 4.6 seconds left in regulation, it worked. Eric Bledsoe made the first free throw, then missed intentionally with a high-arcing second shot. The ensuing scramble ended with DeMarcus Cousins' put-back of an air ball.
Bledsoe said he practices intentional misses on his own and continues to put up high-arcing misses over the objections of the UK coaches.
"They get mad at me," he said. "They want me to shoot it regular."
In this case, Bledsoe knew best.
State gains respect
Mississippi State did not get an NCAA Tournament bid. But the Bulldogs did gain Kentucky's respect in the teams' two overtime thrillers.
"Mississippi State deserves to be in the (NCAA) tournament, hands down," Cousins said. "No questions asked."
And, he added, he was not acting out of sympathy for the hard-luck Bulldogs.
"No sympathy," Cousins said. "They deserve it."
UK Coach John Calipari thought so, too.
"This eyeball test they talk about," he said of the NCAA Selection Committee members. "If Mississippi State is not in the NCAA Tournament, there's no such thing as an eyeball test."
UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, the chairman of the Selection Committee, said State was "definitely in the conversation." But State's strength of schedule rating of No. 97 kept the Bulldogs out of the at-large field.
Guerrero said that 12 of State's 15 non-conference opponents had a Ratings Percentage Index of worse than 110.
Overall No. 1 seed
The Selection Committee gave Kansas the overall No. 1 seed. That had been an objective of Kentucky's.
Guerrero noted that Kansas had no losses to a team with a top-50 RPI. "It's hard to beat the résumé Kansas put together," he said.
John Wall does not charge into an opponent. But he sure charged into Cousins after his teammate's put-back at the buzzer sent the game into overtime.
Cousins thought he broke his nose in the collision that sent both players into the front row of media seating.
"My nose was bleeding afterward, but it was worth it," Cousins said.
"My old football skills from the eighth grade," Wall called it.
Meanwhile, Daniel Orton feared the Wall-led rush toward Cousins might harm Kentucky.
"I was worried about a technical foul, to tell you the truth," he said. "All those players coming off the bench."
A reporter asked State guard Dee Bost which overtime loss to Kentucky hurt worse: the Cats' rally from seven down in the final three minutes of regulation at Starkville or the comeback from five down in the final 90 seconds here?
"Probably this one," he said. "Both of them were painful. But probably this one because we were fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid. We knew we had to have the game. We had it. We had that game."
Sacrifice for team
Barry Stewart said he knew he already had four fouls when he fouled Bledsoe with 4.6 seconds left and State leading by three.
"We didn't want to get beat on a last-second shot," Stewart said. "I was the guy guarding him. So I had to take the foul. I had to sacrifice for the team, and that's something I'll do any day."
Cousins on Varnado
Cousins made the shot to send the game into overtime. But it was no picnic for him going against Jarvis Varnado, the career leader in blocks in college basketball history. Cousins, who was double-teamed early but then went one-on-one with Varnado later in the game, got off only six shots. He scored 10 points, but did grab 10 rebounds.
Varnado had 18 points, nine rebounds and five blocks.
"That's a tough matchup for anybody," Cousins said. "He's just long. He jumps up and his arms keep stretching up."
Cousins, Varnado, Bledsoe, Wall and Stewart made the all-tournament team. Wall became the first UK player since Gerald Fitch in 2004 to be voted Most Valuable Player.