NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) 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.
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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 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. 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.