No. 2 Kentucky beats Mississippi St. 75-74 in OT
The Kentucky Wildcats have rewarded their faithful by adding a Southeastern Conference tournament title to go with their regular season title.
Two down, one to go?
John Wall scored seven of his 15 points in overtime, and No. 2 Kentucky rallied from five down with 2:28 left in regulation to beat Mississippi State 75-74 on Sunday. It was the Wildcats’ 26th Southeastern Conference tournament championship and gave them the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament they didn’t need.
The Wildcats (32-2) blew earlier chances with their fabulous freshmen Wall and DeMarcus Cousins missing free throws and making youthful mistakes. But they came through over the defending tourney champs as Cousins’ layup off Wall’s missed 3-pointer from the right corner beat the regulation buzzer to give them some extra time.
Now Kentucky can celebrate its first SEC tournament title since 2004, ending an interminable drought for their fans who now expect another national championship.
Mississippi State (23-11) lost for the second time to the Wildcats this season after leading late in regulation. The Bulldogs blew a seven-point lead on Feb. 16, and lost that game 81-75 in overtime.
This time, the Bulldogs led 62-57 on Ravern Johnson’s 3 with 2:28 left. That set up a furious finish to a game that had gone back and forth from the opening tip.
Barry Stewart, a senior from nearby Shelbyville, Tenn., hit both free throws with 8.2 seconds left to push the Bulldogs ‘lead to 64-61. He fouled out, sending Bledsoe to the free throw line. He hit the first, missed the second and Wall’s 3-point attempt was short. But Cousins put it back, getting the shot off before the buzzer.
Officials immediately signaled that the shot counted, and Wall and Cousins slammed to the court near the press table celebrating with their teammates piling on as if they had won the game. They finally went back to the bench while officials reviewed the play.
As the Bulldogs slumped and Kentucky celebrated, overtime seemed destined to go the Wildcats’ way. Even then, it wasn’t easy.
Bledsoe’s jumper put them ahead to stay at 71-69 with 1:20 left, and Wall’s lone 3-pointer of the game pushed it to 74-71 with 26 seconds remaining. Cousins hit two free throws with 5 seconds to go that wound up the winning margin as Riley Benock hit a 3 just before the buzzer to start the celebration fans had been waiting for since Calipari was hired last spring.
It was the first time since 1952 that the SEC championship had been decided by one point.
Bledsoe, another member of Calipari’s first recruiting class, finished with 18 points. Patrick Patterson had 15, and Cousins finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Johnson scored 20 points to lead Mississippi State. Jarvis Varnado added 18 and spent much of the overtime upset at the lack of foul calls as he tried to drive to the basket. Dee Bost had 16 points, and Stewart added 11 points and 10 rebounds.
This championship had no pretense of being a neutral court, not with Kentucky fans buying up tickets for this game even at a cost of up to $400 for a single. The Wildcats faithful filled up to 85 percent of the arena with blue eager to end their interminable wait for another tourney title.
But Mississippi State came to this event for a second straight year knowing the best—and likely only—way of earning an NCAA tournament trip was by earning the automatic berth. The Bulldogs did it last year by winning four games in four days, and this season they had a bye to keep them even more rested for the final.
Kentucky leads the series 86-20 and have won eight of the last nine. The Wildcats had been even better in this tournament, going 8-2 with the Bulldogs’ biggest win back in the 1996 finals when they beat Kentucky for their first SEC title.
The Bulldogs blew a chance to beat Kentucky in Starkville on Feb. 16. The Bulldogs led by seven with 3 minutes left only to be taken into overtime when Wall scored five of his 18 points to rally the Wildcats to an 81-75 win. That game was marred near the end when upset fans threw cups filled with ice and water bottles onto the court.