Neutral site. Quality opponent. Dealing with adversity in a possession-by-possession game that called for poise and execution.
If Kentucky needed additional preparation for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, it came on Selection Sunday.
Kentucky got the kind of play in the final minutes of a tense game that sparked an overriding question this season: Can the youngest team in college basketball history win in such a pressurized situation?
Answer provided by a 77-72 victory over Tennessee on Sunday: Yes, Kentucky can.
“It says we’ve grown up a lot,” Sacha Killeya-Jones said. “We’ve been through a lot. We’ve grown as a team and come together and become the kind of team that withstands runs, and then makes runs of our own to win a close game like this on a big stage at a big moment.”
To win the program’s 31st Southeastern Conference Tournament championship — and fourth straight — the Cats had to repeatedly stand up the league’s regular-season co-champions. They also had to shake off reversals of fortune.
Kentucky, 24-10, led by as many as 17 points late in the first half. That Tennessee, 25-8, rallied did not surprise.
“This was definitely the kind of game we expect to it be in the (NCAA) tournament,” Killeya-Jones said. “Close battles like this. Neither team is going to give up. No one is going to go away. You get up in the first half like that, you don’t expect the team to go away.”
A 13-point starburst by Admiral Schofield in the final 3:15 of the first half got Tennessee within 36-31 at halftime.
Tennessee kept charging in the second half, forcing an early UK timeout. “This team responded,” UK Coach John Calipari said. “They responded.”
Then with the Vols ahead by a point with barely four minutes left, the Cats passed another test of fortitude.
Heady-and-ready plays that took advantage of sudden opportunities helped Kentucky down the stretch.
A missed free throw by Kevin Knox found its way to Wenyen Gabriel, who is rapidly becoming an icon after his 7-for-7 three-point shooting on Saturday. He laid it in to put UK ahead 64-62.
“That’s really what my identity is right there,” Gabriel said. “Those hustle baskets right there.”
After Tennessee took and missed a quick and questionable three-point shot, it was Killeya-Jones’ turn to be in the right spot at the right time.
Gabriel missed a three-pointer from the left corner — despite audible encouragement and anticipation from UK fans. But Killeya-Jones came down the lane and dunked the rebound to give UK a 66-62 lead going into the final three-plus minutes.
“Probably the game-winning play for us,” Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “It really changed the momentum.”
If Killeya-Jones was the game-changer, Gilgeous-Alexander was Mr. Indispensable, as evidenced by being voted Most Valuable Player of the SEC Tournament.
His game-high 29 points included example after example of coming through in the clutch.
His 7-for-7 performance at the free-throw line included making all six in the final 2:53. The first two put UK ahead 68-62. It almost wasn’t enough.
Jordan Bone banked in a three-pointer from the left corner — you read that right — to bring Tennessee within 68-67.
But Kentucky made the clutch plays in the final minute. For instance, UK made seven of eight free throws in the final 57.6 seconds.
Kentucky’s hot shooting against Alabama on Saturday carried over to the first half of the championship game.
The Cats made 84.2 percent of their shots in the second half against the Tide. That was record accuracy for a half in John Calipari’s nine seasons as coach.
UK made its first three shots against Tennessee. That included a pair of three-pointers. The Cats reached their average of three-pointers in a game (5.2) when Knox made one with 9:22 left in the first half.
Gilgeous-Alexander all but showed UK could not miss when he beat the shot clock by banking in a three-pointer from the top of the key. That put the Cats ahead 13-5.
When Quade Green hit a pull-up jumper from the foul line with 4:31 left, Kentucky led 33-16 and the UK fans in attendance rose and applauded its approval.
Thereafter Schofield reminded everyone that the competition had not been completed.
Schofield scored Tennessee’s final 13 points. That enabled him to match his season’s average (13.6 per game) in the final 3:15 of the half and bring Tennessee within 36-31 at intermission.
After a three-pointer by Schofield put Tennessee ahead 41-38, Calipari called time with 16:34 left in the second half. He put in three substitutes. But one of the players who stayed in the game steadied Kentucky. Gilgeous-Alexander hit a floater, then scored on a three-point play off a fast-break drive.
Those shots began a 14-2 UK run that built a 52-43 lead with 12:42 left.
“I’m just a competitor,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of his response to adversity. “And I like to compete. And when a team goes on a run, I try to do everything I can. And I almost get mad a little bit, and it gives me a little more energy.”
Afterward, UK players rejoiced in what they did here and how they’ve evolved this season.
“Exactly what we needed,” Killeya-Jones said. “We can even show ourselves that we can do this. We can win these close games. We can execute down the stretch … and do what we need to do in the (NCAA) tournament.”