The first meeting wasn’t even close.
Back in January, back when fast wasn’t fast enough for these Kentucky Wildcats, back when the Cats were swallowing opponents like sharks, Kentucky ran roughshod over the Arkansas Razorbacks 97-71 in Rupp Arena. It was UK’s third straight win by 23 or more points.
That was then and this is now, however. Sunday, the two NCAA Tournament teams — a status certain to be confirmed by the selection committee — will hook up in the finals of the SEC Tournament in a 1 p.m. ET tip in Bridgestone Arena.
Kentucky is a rise-and-grind team now. The torrid tempo of the early season, when the Cats were ripping and running on a regular basis, has given way to the methodical possession-by-possession pace of conference and tournament play.
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Never was that more evident than the first of two Saturday semifinals when John Calipari’s club had to pull out a bruising 79-74 win over No. 5 seed Alabama.
Intent on slowing the pace and eating the clock, Avery Johnson’s Crimson Tide patiently worked each offensive possession, then crashed the boards after missed shots and hustled back on defense when unable to convert on the glass.
The result brought the biting of nails around Big Blue Nation, much of which had again pushed into Music City. When the Tide’s Riley Norris hit the second of two free throws with 6:49 remaining, Alabama trailed by just a single point, 68-67. Johnson’s game plan was working.
Then it all fell apart, though not all at once. UK’s De’Aaron Fox, the ultra-quick point guard, made the game his own, scoring 11 of the Cats’ next 13 points as Kentucky slipped safely into the finals.
“Those kids fought like heck,” said Calipari of the Tide. “We were lucky to get out alive.”
The lack of a rout shouldn’t have been a surprise. Blowout games are over. Saturday’s outcome ran UK’s win streak to 10, but just four have come by double digits. Only one, a 25-point home win over Tennessee, was by more than 11 points.
That’s actually good to see this time of year, when you know a memorable March is built on winning the close ones.
“It teaches us how to win, how to make winning plays down the stretch when every play matters,” said Isaiah Briscoe, the sophomore guard who sat 17 minutes of the first half with two fouls before making valuable contributions in the second half. “Then you can see how good you can be and how good your team is.”
Though at a faster tempo — Forty Minutes of Hell is still the program slogan — Arkansas figures to bring more of the same. The Razorbacks are on a roll of their own, having cooled off Vanderbilt 76-62 in Saturday’s second semifinal for their eighth win in their last nine games.
The lone loss in that stretch came 78-65 at Florida, a tough team and a tough place to play. Since then, however, Mike Anderson’s team took apart Georgia 85-67, survived Mississippi 73-72 in a terrific tourney quarterfinal and then bothered Vanderbilt into shooting just 30.4 percent from the floor to get another shot at the Cats.
The two programs have a long SEC Tournament history, dating all the way back to that epic 1995 finals when Rick Pitino and Kentucky beat Nolan Richardson and defending national champion Arkansas 95-93 in overtime at the Georgia Dome.
In more recent times, the two teams met in the finals two years ago with UK running its record to 34-0 with a 78-63 win over the Razorbacks.
Talking with ESPN’s Dick Vitale at halftime Saturday, the Hall of Famer was quick to point out this isn’t the UK of two years ago or even the UK of John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins when Calipari first arrived on campus.
But, said Vitale, Kentucky is still good enough to win, good enough survive and advance by passing each test. Sunday, Arkansas brings one more.
Kentucky vs. Arkansas
What: SEC Tournament championship
When: 1 p.m.
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville
Records: No. 1 seed Kentucky 28-5, No. 3 seed Arkansas 25-8
Series: UK leads 29-11
Last meeting: UK won 97-71 on Jan. 7 in Rupp Arena
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
NCAA Tournament Selection Show: 5:30 p.m. (CBS-27)