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Date story published: Monday, March 17, 2003

NEW ORLEANS -- High-caliber competition. Championship stakes. At Blue, er, New Orleans.

A certain four-team tournament here in three weeks loomed over Kentucky's 64-57 victory over Mississippi State yesterday.

If anyone missed the future tense in UK's 24th Southeastern Conference Tournament championship, a fan behind the Cats' bench provided a pointed reminder.

A woman held up a sign that read: "Save our seats for April 7."

The national championship game will be played here on April 7.

After the kind of grinding game typical of what New Orleans will see in the Final Four, Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury spoke of his team's potential to return in three weeks. But he spoke of Kentucky's inevitable advance.

"I think it's very obvious they're going to be back in New Orleans," Stansbury said. "You just have to figure out the other three teams. I'm sure they're going to keep the same hotel rooms. They may check out, but they're going to keep those keys."

No UK player claimed he had kept a hotel key. "If I had one in my back pocket, it might be a distraction," a smiling Gerald Fitch said.

But teammate Cliff Hawkins did produce a prop. He turned from reporters and reached for something in his dressing area. "I got my beads," he said.

Extending the nation's longest, active winning streak to 23 games, Kentucky got an NCAA Tournament-like test from Mississippi State. State became the first team since Vanderbilt on Jan. 14 to lead the Cats at halftime. The Bulldogs also became only the third opponent in that two-month period to claim a second-half lead against UK.

This tested Kentucky's championship mettle to execute under pressure. Kentucky passed the test.

"A great basketball team makes plays," said Timmy Bowers, who led State with 13 points. "They made plays we couldn't come back from."

Neither team built a double-digit lead. With State intent on controlling the pace and getting back on defense, Kentucky never mounted the breakout run that demolished most opponents this season. Instead, the Cats' 19 turnovers helped keep the margin close.

Kentucky led by nine as late as the 6:31 mark of the second half. Then the Bulldogs' solid guards, Derrick Zimmerman and Bowers, led a charge that set up the game's decisive final three minutes.

With the lead down to 56-55, UK's Chuck Hayes missed a heavily contested layup. State failed on two chances to take the lead.

As he did repeatedly all afternoon, Zimmerman drove down the lane. And as happened repeatedly, a UK big man rotated to his path and influenced a miss.

"I got to feel I got hit on my drives all game," Zimmerman said. "I've never been three of 13 on layups."

Hayes came over the back of State's all-league center, Mario Austin, on the rebound. Austin, a 68.3-percent free-thrower, stepped to the line with 1:51 left. He missed both.

Kentucky capitalized on that reprieve. UK center Marquis Estill drove around Austin for a layup to put the Cats ahead 58-55 with 1:24 left.

When Zimmerman missed another driving shot, the championship was in sight.

As is required in tight games, the Cats won by making free throws (six of eight in the final 1:06).

UK players had no sympathy for Zimmerman's claims of uncalled fouls.

"He might have (been fouled)," Hawkins said. "A guy that explosive, he'll get by you and end up in there with the trees. Now he knows how the trees feel going against each other around the basket."

Estill, a tower of strength with 13 points and nine rebounds as well as the front-line man in defending Austin, called it "probably the most physical game I've played all year long.

"It was kind of fun," he said. "The refs were letting us play."

As several players on both sides said, it had the feel of a tournament game, an NCAA Tournament game.

"Two premier programs," Hayes said. "We both gave each other our best shots."