John Clay

SEC tourney important to Cats after all

NASHVILLE — In the days preceding the march to Music City, John Calipari tried to act like the SEC Tournament didn't matter.

It mattered.

It mattered Saturday because it was Kentucky-Tennessee, a rubber match between border rivals with emotional coaches and trash-talking players and dueling passionate fan bases.

It mattered because both teams wanted the same thing.

"We both wanted to win," said Patrick Patterson.

Even the head coach?

"Don't let Coach Cal fool you," said DeMarcus Cousins, smiling.

So because it mattered, Kentucky played as if it mattered greatly, as if its life depended on it, turning in one of the best defensive performances it has mustered in this or many other years, thrashing the trash-talking Volunteers 74-45 in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.

Yes, the previously off-target Cats made eight of 22 three-pointers, and Cousins awoke from his three-game slumber to score 19 points and grab 15 rebounds.

Yes, John Wall was John Wall once again, scoring 14 points and dishing out nine assists.

But it wasn't Kentucky's offensive firepower that burned the Big Orange.

"Defense and rebounding win championships," said Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl afterward, "and they play the best defense of any team in our league."

Up just 45-39 with 9:27 remaining, Kentucky proceeded to hold the Vols to one field goal the rest of the way. That was a Kenny Hall dunk with 4:39 left after UK had extended its lead to 58-41. That's it. One field goal.

"It was a real struggle to score against them," Pearl said. "It required a tremendous amount of energy to get open and to get good looks. And we just didn't have it."

Kentucky didn't let Tennessee have it.

"If we play defense like we did today and we're making shots, it's going to be tough for any team to beat us," said Wall.

If Kentucky plays like it matters, it's tough for teams to beat the Cats. And despite the fact that this was just a conference tournament semifinal, each team saw two of its players pick up technical fouls.

It got to the breaking point when Tennessee's backup mini-guard Melvin Goins purposely hit the 6-foot-11 Cousins where it really, really hurts.

Goins was ejected for the flagrant foul, of which Cousins said, "I don't know what was going on with that." And why did Cousins retaliate by pounding his fist into his hand and mouthing off?

"I blurted some things out," said Big Cuz.

If it didn't matter, why did the normally mild-mannered Daniel Orton get into it with his own coaches on the bench to the point where he was told to return to the locker room and had to be tracked down by Scott Padgett?

"Everyone just got caught up in the moment," said Orton afterward.

This was an afternoon where, in a supposedly neutral-site arena, whenever the Tennessee band struck up Rocky Top, the Kentucky fandom, which occupied at least 70 percent of the seats, drowned out the song with thunderous chants of "Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue!"

Hearing something like that, in an atmosphere like Saturday's, sometimes can change your priorities.

"For us to play here and finish so we keep that (No. 1) seed is important," said Calipari afterward.

"Here's what's more important: When I see a building full of blue fans, who paid a lot of money for the tickets — $500, $1,000 probably, people that could not afford to pay a $500 or $1,000, they're taking their vacation in Nashville, Tennessee, to watch our team play. Well, then, you kind of feel you owe it to them to give your best shot."

Because it mattered Saturday, Kentucky gave its best shot.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader