Tireless Ulis Leads UK to 29th SEC Tournament Title
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – John Calipari's first priority coming to Nashville wasn't winning a championship.
Rather, he coached Kentucky with an eye on the Big Dance next week, not the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
The Wildcats -- for the fourth time in Coach Cal's seven seasons and 29th time overall -- won the thing anyway.
“It's a good feeling,” Jamal Murray said. “We came together as a team, and we fought hard all season. It's been a journey. We trusted Coach all the way and trusted our point guard. So it's up to them to lead us again.”
UK and Texas A&M waged an overtime battle worthy of the SEC Tournament championship game, going back and forth throughout. Steadied by league Player of the Year and now tournament Most Valuable Player Tyler Ulis, the Wildcats added a tournament crown to the regular-season co-championship they shared with the Aggies. Next up, the Cats will learn their draw in the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET.
“I'm really proud of this basketball team, how much they've improved,” Calipari said. “Individually, guys are becoming the best version of themselves.”
Ulis – who was on the floor for all 45 minutes – made big play after big play in a game that featured 10 ties and eight lead changes. He poured in a career-high 30 points on 10-of-17 shooting and added five assists, three rebounds and three steals for good measure.
In a surprise to no one, he was named SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player after leading UK to its second comeback from a halftime deficit in as many days and their first two of the season.
“He’s big time,” said Isaiah Briscoe, who had 10 points, six assists and five rebounds. “He’s a big-time point guard. Everybody always talks about, ‘He’s not big enough, he’s not tall enough.’ But he has the heart of a lion and he showed it today.”
Murray – Ulis’ fellow All-American and SEC All-Tournament team honoree – was blanketed by A&M and having an uncharacteristically quiet game most of the way, but he broke out his signature bow and arrow at the most opportune moment. He hit his third 3 of the afternoon in 10 attempts with 15 seconds remaining in overtime to give UK a six-point lead.
“I doubted it was going in, but he didn't,” Calipari said. “That's what's good about him.”
The make – combined with a Derek Willis 3 on the previous possession – touched off the celebration for the Kentucky fans who painted Bridgestone Arena blue all weekend.
“There was no doubt in my mind I was going to go to Derek Willis that last play,” Calipari said. “It was supposed to be the play before, and Tyler went the other way into a pick-and-roll, and I looked at him and said, we're running the drive play, and he drove right at Derek, and Derek threw that dagger.”
With four minutes left in regulation, it appeared Murray had delivered another dagger. He buried a 3 with 4:01 remaining that gave UK a seven-point lead that most opponents would have found insurmountable. Not A&M, which bested UK in College Station, Texas, in February.
Behind the brilliant Danuel House – who scored seven points in the final four minutes, including the game-tying jumper with 19 seconds left – the Aggies closed on an 11-4 run to force the extra period. House had 32 points on the day.
In the end, Ulis would not be denied. Though he missed the potential game winner at the end of regulation, Ulis buried a 3 for the first points of overtime and found Willis for the go-ahead 3 with 1:01 to go.
“He's played three straight days about 40 minutes, and he could probably play another game right now,” said Alex Caruso, the Aggie tasked with shadowing Ulis for much of the game. “He's a tremendous athlete. His conditioning is outstanding. I think that helps a lot. When someone doesn't get tired, they can play at their best, and his best is really elite. He's a good player, Player of the Year in the conference, I think rightfully so.”
Calipari took his praise a step further.
“I might be biased – I don't think I am – but he should be one of those guys for Player of the Year, if not the guy,” Calipari said. “And because he's 5-9, everybody, it's like, how can you do it? But when you look at his numbers and what he's doing, that's the Player of the Year, those numbers. So his heart and his energy that he plays with is just ridiculous. We feed off of it, to be honest with you.”
Now UK – in the midst of a five-game winning streak – will do the same in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re just going to keep this momentum going,” Briscoe said. “Everybody’s clicking. Everybody knows their role. We’re at our best right now.”