No. 2 Kentucky 75, Mississippi St. 74

John Calipari only had questions once he and his Kentucky

Wildcats finished celebrating their Southeastern Conference

tournament championship.

“How did we win this game? How did we go to overtime? I don’t

know,” Calipari said.

Credit his fantastic freshmen who scored to get them to overtime

and then won the game, even if they celebrated a little

prematurely.

John Wall scored seven of his 17 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. The Wildcats rewarded their

faithful by adding their 26th SEC tournament championship and an

automatic berth to the NCAA tournament to their 44th regular season

title.

Two down, one to go?

That might be why the Wildcats ran around the arena waving and

yelling with their fans without ever cutting down a net.

“We will cut down nets,” Calipari promised. “It’s just not

the SEC tournament nets. Maybe hopefully in the NCAA tournament

somewhere, but I think these guys they have a big picture. … This

is a game we should’ve lost.”

The Wildcats (32-2) blew earlier chances with 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.

Wall did miscalculate. He thought the Wildcats had won on

Cousins’ shot and tackled the 6-foot-11, 270-pound forward to the

court near the press table, celebrating a wee bit early.

“I was so excited,” Wall said. “When I went to the bench,

Coach said, `It’s overtime.’ I was like, `Whew.’ I was tired. I

knew we fought hard. I didn’t play a great game, but I did a great

job of leading my team.”

Cousins knew he had forced overtime even if his teammates didn’t

as they followed Wall’s lead and swarmed him on the floor.

“So I got kind of beat up at the end thanks to John,” Cousins

said with a smile.

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.

“Any person watching that game, how could you not be just

absolutely amazed what these guys did against one of the most

talented teams in the country?” Mississippi State coach Rick

Stansbury said. “We had our opportunities to close it out. That’s

part of the game. … And I can promise you, there’s not one ounce

left in them.”

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 Eric Bledsoe to the free throw line.

He hit the first, missed the second and Wall’s 3-point attempt was

well short. But Cousins put it back, getting the shot off before

the buzzer.

Officials immediately signaled that the shot counted, and Wall

and Cousins celebrated with their teammates piling on as if they

had won. They finally went back to the bench while officials

reviewed the play.

“Time never ran out seemed like,” Stewart said of the end of

regulation. “Longest 4.9 seconds of my life.”

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.

“That’s what you’re going to get when you play against

Kentucky,” Varnado said. “They’ve got some big guys (Daniel)

Orton, Patterson and Cousins.”

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 winning 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 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.