Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 77-72 win over Tennessee in the championship game of the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament:
1. To Kentucky: “It Just Means More.”
This was Kentucky’s 31st SEC Tournament title and its fourth straight, but it was also one of its more improbable. After all, the Cats finished just 10-8 in league play in the regular season. They were the No. 4 seed for an improved league that was lauded for its balance from top to bottom.
Despite John Calipari’s spoken indifference about all conference tournaments, in a league that uses the slogan “It Just Means More,” this tournament just means more to Kentucky, its school, its program and especially its fans.
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Despite the site being shifted to St. Louis, the Big Blue Nation crossed the river to Missouri and got behind the team it had scratched its collective head about all season. As usual, all three days, Kentucky had most the fans in the seats at the Scottrade Center, and those who made the trip were rewarded.
Sunday’s final was a back and forth affair with Kentucky leading by as many as 17 points in the first half before No. 2 seed Tennessee went on a 15-3 run — Admiral Schofield score the Vols’ final 13 points of the first half — to cut the lead to 36-31 at the half.
Tennessee went on a 10-2 run to start the second half for a 41-38 lead. UK responded with a 14-2 run for a 52-43 lead. Tennessee jumped right back in front 57-55 with 8:05 remaining, then 62-61 with 4:51 left.
From there, however, UK scored seven straight points to take command. Key was an offensive rebound basket by Wenyen Gabriel off a missed Kevin Knox free throw to make it 64-62.
Then came a surprise follow dunk by Sacha Killeya-Jones, who came from the top of the key, off a Gabriel miss to make it 66-62 Cats. In some earlier games down the stretch, those were the types of plays the Cats did not make.
It is later in the season now and there was more on the line Sunday. Maybe that’s what the made difference for a Kentucky team that had lost twice to the Vols in the regular season. This is tournament time, however, the SEC Tournament, something that seems to mean more to Kentucky.
2. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the deserving MVP — of the season.
With the net around his neck, the freshman point guard semi-joked that he didn’t like the feel of the falling confetti, that it irritated his skin, that it was annoying. He’d just as soon they drop that tradition.
And yet it was a fitting ending for the best player on the SEC Tournament champion. Gilgeous-Alexander scored a game-high 29 points on Sunday, hitting 10 of 16 shots, including two of three three-pointers. He was a perfect seven of seven from the foul line.
Unexpected this was not. Knox might have been voted SEC Freshman of the Year by the coaches, but Gilgeous-Alexander has been UK’s best player all season, an opinion Calipari has confirmed on more than one occasion this season.
When Shai plays well, Kentucky plays well. Take the final regular-season game at Florida. Though his numbers were pretty good (17 points, six assists), Gilgeous-Alexander did not play his best, according to Calipari. And neither did UK, losing 80-67 to the Gators.
That turned around in St. Louis. He scored 15 points and dished nine assists in UK’s 62-49 win over Georgia. Saturday, he scored 19 points, produced eight assists and guarded Alabama star Collin Sexton in UK’s 86-63 thumping of the Crimson Tide.
Even better than the stats is the way Gilgeous-Alexander controls the game. He plays at just the right pace, utilizing that so-called “Old Man’s Game” to make his way in the lane for creative baskets at just the right time.
You would have thought — I thought — that opponents would eventually figure out a way to keep the Canadian out of the lane, but that hasn’t happened not yet. If they have adjusted, SAG has adjusted right back.
So Sunday there he was smiling in the UK victorious lockerroom, wearing the title net, joking that he had planned to bank in that three-pointer with the shot clock ticking down early in the first half.
Then, on a more serious note, he admitted, “It’s nice to get acknowledged.”
3. A booster shot of confidence heading into the Big Dance.
Maybe Sunday was one of those games it was only big if, as Calipari says, your team wins the game, but the championship tilt felt like a big game for Kentucky.
For starters, the atmosphere felt like an NCAA Tournament game. Tennessee is good. Rick Barnes has done a standout job molding a young team into one that plays unselfishly on offense and great intensity on defense. The Vols were conference co-champs and the No. 2 seeds for a reason.
If you’re a Tennessee fan, you wonder what would have happened had not Schofield, who finished with 22 points, missed a significant period of the second half with a possible concussion. Or if Tennessee had not missed eight of its first nine three-point attempts.
As for Kentucky, a third straight loss to the Vols would have surely deflated a little of the confidence the Cats earned here over the weekend. To go 0-3 against UT would not have been the recipe you wanted heading home for the Sunday night NCAA Selection Show.
Instead, Kentucky has now won seven of its last eight games. It shot 50 percent for the game Sunday after shooting 64.3 percent against Alabama on Saturday. It got sizable contributions from Sacha Killeya-Jones and Quade Green, as well as a ridiculous tournament from Gabriel, who made nine of 13 threes in the final two games.
“We’re playing our season best right now,” Knox said.
And that’s exactly what you want going into the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18
vs Kansas (Chicago)
vs Monmouth (New York)
vs UCLA (New Orleans)
vs Georgia (SEC)
vs Alabama (SEC)
vs Tennessee (SEC)