None of the players on the current Kentucky team ever had been a part of a Southeastern Conference tournament championship.
Then again, many of this season’s most important Wildcats never had lost a game in this tournament either. Same for their coach.
Thus, when the critical moments arrived, it was two of those inexperienced players – freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins – who saw to it that the sudden resurgence under first-year coach John Calipari continued.
Their efforts were paramount to Kentucky’s 75-74 overtime victory over Mississippi State on Sunday before 20,082 at Bridgestone Arena. It was the 26th conference tournament crown for the Wildcats, their first since 2004 and surely one of their most dramatic.
“That was easy,” Calipari joked.
Cousins forced overtime with a tip-in just before the buzzer to end regulation and made a decisive free throw with five to play in overtime. The latter came after Wall had all but put the game out of reach with a line drive 3-point shot 21 seconds earlier.
“I just grabbed it and tried to put it in quickly (at the end of regulation),” Cousins said. “It went it. I knew it was good because I was looking at the red light.”
The Wildcats had lost their last two overtime games in the tournament, including one to Mississippi State in the 2007 quarterfinals.
They extended this one when they overcame a three-point deficit, in unconventional fashion, with eight seconds to go. A free throw intentionally missed by guard Eric Bledsoe, another freshman, with 4.9 seconds to play led to an offensive rebound and a missed shot by Wall and then another offensive rebound and the put-back by Cousins.
“Time never ran out,” Mississippi State guard Barry Stewart said. “It seemed like the longest 4.9 seconds of my life.”
Bledsoe finished with a team-high 18 points. Wall had 17 points, nine assists, six rebounds and five steals, and Cousins chipped in with 10 points and a team-high 10 rebounds.
Moments before the trophy presentation, the chant went up from the decidedly pro-Kentucky crowd: “One more year!”
It could have been directed toward any number of the Wildcats – none of whom had probably ever heard it.
Other items of note from the tournament:
A blind eye
Moments after the championship game and several hours before the NCAA tournament field was announced, Calipari made clear what he thought about Mississippi State’s chances to be in the national championship field.
“Let me first start by telling you that this ‘eye test’ they talk about … if Mississippi State is not in the NCAA tournament, there’s no such thing as an eye test,” Calipari said. “ … I don’t understand. Then again, there’s a lot of things I don’t understand.”
His confusion undoubtedly was enhanced when the Bulldogs, who also took Kentucky to overtime during the regular season were left out.
MSU reached the title game with victories over Florida and Vanderbilt, both of which made the NCAA field.
Tennessee forward J.P. Prince did not foul out of any of the three games the Volunteers played, but he came close.
He had three fouls in the first-round victory over LSU and four in each of the next two games. Some were particularly confounding, such as the one when it appeared two Ole Miss players ran into each other as Prince avoided any contact.
“You know, you can't -- the official is either going to call it or not,” Prince said. “You've just got to keep playing.”
Fix it up
Forward Andre Walker did a lot of things for Vanderbilt throughout the season, but shooting the ball usually wasn’t one of them. He averaged slightly more than four shots per game during the regular season.
In the Commodores’ quarterfinal victory over Georgia, he attempted four in the first 4:30 – and missed all four. He finished the night 3-for-10 (a career-high for attempts) and scored six points.
“The coaches did tell me to shoot a little more, but I was broke,” Walker said. “I can shoot, and I’m going to fix it. But in that game, I was broke.”
The all-tournament team consisted exclusively of players in the championship game.
Kentucky had three – John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe – and Mississippi State had two – Jarvis Varnado and Barry Stewart. Wall, the SEC Player of the Year, also earned tournament Most Valuable Player honors.