For the first time in 40 seasons, the Kentucky Wildcats emerged as champions of the SEC conference tournament. The Wildcats have been NCAA Tournament regulars, but Sunday’s final marks only their third conference regular season or tournament championship. The Wildcats’ conference championship wouldn’t have been possible without UK playing like every game was their last for over a month.
Entering the tournament as a No. 7 seed, Kentucky defeated Mississippi State, the AP’s sixth-ranked team in LSU, the AP’s 18th ranked team, Tennessee, and No. 1 South Carolina in the SEC title game. The most stunning aspect of their run through the SEC isn’t the teams they trampled to get there.
Less than one month ago, UK was 9-11 and 2-8 in conference play following a 59-50 home loss to the Gamecocks. That loss marked their eighth loss in nine games. Ironically that downward spiral began with a road loss to South Carolina on Jan. 9, and the Wildcats haven’t lost since.
Kentucky essentially secured an at-large bid after their win over Tennessee in the second round. In the semifinals, they clobbered an LSU team that has won eight in a row and was vying for a No. 1 seed in Kim Mulkey’s first season as head coach. In that contest, Rhyne Howard, UK’s 2-time SEC Player of the Year and career record holder in 3s made, led the way with 32 points and six 3-pointers.
In Sunday’s Conference Championship Game, they teetered on the edge of defeat.
While Howard struggled from the field, junior forward Dre’una Edwards stepped up off the bench for the second time this week to propel UK into the winner’s column.
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Showing the type of resolve that’s become customary for them in the last month, Kentucky rallied from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter before putting the clamps on South Carolina in the final minutes of regulation.
Of course, UK’s defense played lights out down the stretch, holding the No. 1 team in the country scoreless in the final 3:58. South Carolina’s final bucket of the contest came with 5:02 remaining in regulation when Aliyah Boston’s jumper placed Kentucky in a nine-point hole.
Edwards scored Kentucky’s final seven points in the final two minutes, including the game-winning triple that was set up by head coach Kyra Elzy out of a timeout.
Few teams in the Tournament are as hot as UK is right now. Elzy’s squad will now drop into the tense NCAA Tournament atmosphere with a newfound confidence in their ability to play with and even outlast some of the top teams in the country. While the tournament raises the stakes for the teams selected, the immense pressure of single-elimination basketball has been UK’s circadian rhythm. Ultimately, they emerged as diamonds in the rough.