John Clay

Well, well, look who’s back in the SEC Tournament finals. Yes, it’s Kentucky.

Photo slideshow: Defense, Gabriel's 3-point barrage send UK past Alabama

Wenyen Gabriel shot 7-for-7 on threes and matched his career high with 23 points, sending Kentucky past Collin Sexton and Alabama 86-63 Saturday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals.
Up Next
Wenyen Gabriel shot 7-for-7 on threes and matched his career high with 23 points, sending Kentucky past Collin Sexton and Alabama 86-63 Saturday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals.

You can change the site. Doesn’t matter. You can change the position in the standings. Doesn’t matter. You can change nearly the entire roster. Doesn’t matter. You can change the rotation thanks to an unexpected injury. It just doesn’t matter.

When it comes to the SEC men’s basketball tournament, Kentucky is still Kentucky, same as it ever was, the team that always seems to be there on the final day for the final game.

Ask the poor Alabama Crimson Tide, probably still flat of their backs after being hit by a Big Blue runaway train on Saturday, with Wenyen Gabriel the star conductor, on the way to an 86-63 victory in a tournament semifinal.

“I felt like I couldn’t miss,” Gabriel said.

The sophomore didn’t miss, going a perfect 7-for-7 from three-point range, eclipsing Travis Ford’s SEC Tournament record of six made three-pointers, to finish with 23 points as the Cats roared into the tournament finals for the fifth consecutive year. Now they’re looking for their fourth straight title.

Kentucky sophomore Wenyen Gabriel talks to the media after going 7-for-7 on three-pointers in his team’s SEC Tournament semifinal win over Alabama.

This wasn’t supposed to happen, remember. Not this year. Not when the deck was supposedly stacked against John Calipari’s ridiculously young team, which rode the rocky waves of an unusually stressful season to a 10-8 conference record and fourth-place finish.

Besides, this was the year of new-and-improved SEC basketball, with stronger teams, better balance — “We’re all within three to five points of each other,” Calipari declared during the year — and a credible belief that any of the league’s 14 teams could jump up and claim the title come Sunday.

Then Tuesday brought word that Jarred Vanderbilt, UK’s booster shot of energy and top glass-eating rebounder, had suffered an ankle injury that would shelve the 6-foot-9 freshman for the weekend’s activities in St. Louis.

And, oh yeah, St. Louis. Instead of holding the tournament in its usual haunts of Nashville (otherwise known as Lexington South) or Atlanta (Cat-lanta), the league’s powers that be packed up the affair and shipped it West, young man, across the Mississippi River into Missouri.

Kentucky forward Kevin Knox talks about the defense after UK’s 86-63 win over Alabama in the SEC Tournament.

Not to worry, Kentucky fans found their way there, jamming the Scottrade Center to watch Kentucky drive the final nail into Mark Fox’s coaching coffin at Georgia with a 62-49 bashing of the Bulldogs.

That earned a Saturday semifinal date with the most electrifying player in this tournament, or any other conference tournament, in Alabama point guard Collin Sexton, who the day before had thrown down 31 points to bounce No. 1 seed Auburn and send Tigers’ head coach Bruce Pearl into a postgame scrap with an Alabama strength coach.

“I know how good he is,” said Calipari on Friday of the Alabama guard because, after all, Cal knows a thing or two about elite freshmen.

This was the year, however, when it appeared Cal was in short supply. Yes, the coaches voted Kevin Knox as co-SEC Freshman of the Year and tabbed Shai Gilgeous-Alexander a second-team All-SEC pick, but the media snubbed the Cats, which wasn’t all that surprising since the team barely poked its ahead above .500.

To be fair, Sexton made a couple of dazzling Saturday plays while scoring 21 points, but the “Young Bull” was no match for Kentucky’s sudden bomber from South Sudan who had never made more than three three-pointers in a single game.

“We knew he could do it,” teammate Sacha Killeya-Jones said of Gabriel. “We’ve watched him hit 80 shots in five minutes in practice before.”

It wasn’t just Wenyen. Kentucky’s defense was again superb, holding Alabama to 19 first-half points after limiting Georgia to 23 on Friday. On offense, Kentucky missed all of three second-half shots, going 16-for-19 for a blistering 84.2 percent, including 8-for-9 from three.

“Three shots?” said PJ Washington, shaking his head. “I didn’t know that.”

It is true that Georgia on Friday and Alabama on Saturday were each playing their third game in three days. And yes, Alabama was without leading rebounder Donta Hall, who missed the game with a concussion. And yes, even Calipari, who makes no secret of his disdain for conference tournaments, argues this will not help UK’s NCAA Tournament seeding come Sunday night’s selections.

Doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. It’s the SEC Tournament and Kentucky is back in the finals. Some things never change.

Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander talks about the defensive job on Alabama star Collin Sexton, who scored 21 points in UK’s 86-63 win.

John Calipari game-by-game in SEC Tournament

Date

Opponent

UK

Opp

Dec

3/12/10

vs Alabama (SEC)

73

67

W

3/13/10

vs Tennessee (SEC)

74

45

W

3/14/10

vs Miss St (SEC)

75

74

W (OT)

3/11/11

vs Ole Miss (SEC)

75

66

W

3/12/11

vs Alabama (SEC)

72

58

W

3/13/11

vs Florida (SEC)

70

54

W

3/9/12

vs LSU (SEC)

60

51

W

3/10/12

vs Florida (SEC)

74

71

W

3/11/12

vs Vanderbilt (SEC)

64

71

L

3/15/13

vs Vanderbilt (SEC)

48

64

L

3/14/14

vs LSU (SEC)

85

67

W

3/15/14

vs Georgia (SEC)

70

58

W

3/16/14

vs Florida (SEC)

60

61

L

3/13/15

vs Florida (SEC)

64

49

W

3/14/15

vs Auburn (SEC)

91

67

W

3/15/15

vs Arkansas (SEC)

78

63

W

3/11/16

vs Alabama (SEC)

85

59

W

3/12/16

vs Georgia (SEC)

93

80

W

3/13/16

vs Texas A&M (SEC)

82

77

W (OT)

3/10/17

vs Georgia (SEC)

71

60

W

3/11/17

vs Alabama (SEC)

79

74

W

3/12/17

vs Arkansas (SEC)

82

65

W

3/9/18

vs Georgia (SEC)

62

49

W

3/10/18

vs Alabama (SEC)

86

63

W

  Comments