The Kentucky Wildcats (29-5) added their 30th tournament title all-time to go along with their 48 regular season championships this past Sunday afternoon right in the heart of Music City, at Bridgestone Arena. De’Aaron Fox scored 18 points, as ‘number eight’ Kentucky won its third straight Southeastern Conference Tournament championship by beating the Arkansas Razorbacks 82-65. Kentucky finished the game by outscoring Arkansas 9-1.
Kentucky answered every big bucket from the Razorbacks. Arkansas couldn’t consistently string together points. Kentucky scored 13 straight points to end the first half. Into the opening minute of the second half, they had a 16-point edge, thanks to Bam Adebayo who had two free throws and a layup to push Kentucky’s lead up. The Wildcats pushed that to as much as 19. Monk and Adebayo each finished with 17 points. Hawkins added 14.
John Calipari wanted a physical game for his squad before the big dance. He got just what he ordered, with a couple of added bonuses on Sunday. Arkansas put the Wildcats to the test, but Calipari’s Cats kept their poise under pressure for the most part — aside from Malik Monk celebrating a made bucket with a throat slash gesture.
“I made a three, emotions took over,” Monk said. “I have to learn from that.”
It got very chippy late, after Arkansas hit six straight shots, the last a three-pointer by Jaylen Barford, to pull within nine for the only time in the second half. Dusty Hannahs was given a flagrant foul for knocking Kentucky guard Dominique Hawkins to the floor on a screenplay. A possession later, Moses Kingsley was ejected with approximately a minute left in the contest for his physical foul on Fox, who was attempting a jump shot.
“It was unfortunate,” said Coach Mike Anderson of emotions getting out of hand late. “I don’t think anybody was intent on trying to hurt anybody.”
“We kind of lost our composure,” said Razorback guard Daryl Macon.
Arkansas (25-9) fell to 1-6 in this championship, having lost to Kentucky for the second time in three years. The Razorbacks came in having won eight of their last nine, looking for their first tournament title since 2000. But not this time. They would have had to keep it close in order to have a chance. They failed to do so. It was a totally different game in the second half. Macon led the Razorbacks with 18 points. Hannahs had 14 and Barford added 13.
Kentucky never trailed by more than two in a fast-paced first half that featured four ties and six lead changes. Arkansas last led 18-17 midway through the half before Monk scored to put Kentucky ahead for good. After Macon hit a three-pointer with over three minutes left in the half to pull Arkansas within three, the Wildcats exploded. Derek Willis hit a three-pointer. Dominique Hawkins followed with another, and Mychal Mulder beat the buzzer with one for a 42-30 halftime lead.
The Wildcats are hitting on all levels at the perfect time of year. This was their 11th straight win. The Razorbacks and Wildcats will be playing in the NCAA tournament. It will not be easy for either of them. Arkansas is a ‘number eight’ seed. Kentucky is a ‘number two’ seed. Ironically, both are in the South Region. Three of the top eight teams (UCLA & North Carolina among them) are in the same bracket. Two of them could play each other in the second round. Both are in the toughest bracket in NCAA history. Whoa!!!