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Sometimes the SEC Tournament bracket works out in your favor, see last year’s path to the tournament title, and sometimes it doesn’t. Last season, Kentucky avoided facing the stiffest and most familiar competition until the final day. This season, not so much. The Cats had the pleasure of playing the two best teams remaining in the tournament in consecutive days and for the third time this season. And clearly the third time was not the charm.
Kentucky opened the tournament with what turned out to be an absolute battle with the LSU Tigers, eventually winning 60-51. The Cats uncharacteristically struggled with careless turnovers, poor offensive execution, and a rather forgettable performance by point guard Marquis Teague. If not for impressive performances by the starting front court of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, and Anthony Davis their time in Blue Orleans might have been short lived.
Next up for the Wildcats was a semifinal matchup with Florida for the third time in the last month. In the previous two UK victories, the Gators had struggled shooting the three, but it was evident from the opening tip that this wasn’t going to be the case on this day, as they made five of their first nine attempts and 11 total for the game. Kentucky managed to make it more of a half-court game in the second half and was able to use their size advantage in the post. All five starters finished the game with double figures in scoring as the Cats held on for a 74-71 victory.
In order to claim their third straight SEC Tournament title, Kentucky would again have to defeat another conference foe for the third time this season. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt wasn’t cooperative. The Commodores had played the Cats tough in both previous matchups and were more than they could handle on this day. It started with hot shooting from downtown and finished with a tremendous defensive performance down the stretch to claim only their second SEC Tournament Championship in the school’s history with a 71-64 win.
Kentucky’s inability to score a single basket in the game’s final eight minutes and struggles shooting the basketball throughout the contest led to only their second loss on the season. They finished the game 6-28 from the three point line and 35.9 percent overall. Vanderbilt’s decision to make the Cats beat them from the outside and switch to a zone in defense in crunch time worked out well on this day.
After the game Coach Calipari said he was surprised by the team’s inability to make shots when it mattered most. "This team has responded. Today, for the first time in the last four minutes of the game we didn’t make shots. I’ll be honest with you, I was stunned and I mean they were wide open shots with no one near and we just missed. That happens. I’d rather it happen now than next weekend or the following weekend or the following weekend, do it now."
In the grand scheme of things, the loss means little. Kentucky still received the overall #1 seed in the South Region of the NCAA tournament and will begin their quest for their eighth National Championship in Louisville on tonight, March 15. The Madness of March is upon us and anything can happen. Will this be the year that Calipari and his young Cats win that elusive title? We’ll all know the answer on April 2nd.
(Brian Melton is a contributing writer for the Grant County News. He can be reached at email@example.com.)