Wildcats Win SEC Tournament Championship!
March 16, 2003
By PAUL NEWBERRY
NEW ORLEANS - Kentucky didn't bother to cut down the nets at the Superdome after winning the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The Wildcats plan to take care of that little matter in three weeks.
Tournament MVP Keith Bogans scored 22 points and second-ranked Kentucky stretched its winning streak to 23 games, holding off Mississippi State 64-57 in the title game Sunday.
After a weekend of upsets, the Wildcats will head into the NCAA tournament ranked No. 1 and favored to win it all.
Conveniently enough, the Final Four is being held in New Orleans, too.
"They probably won't even turn in the keys from their rooms," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said.
After the horn sounded, the Wildcats donned hats and shirts commemorating their 24th SEC tournament championship. Then, they gathered at midcourt to pick up a couple of trophies - one for the team, one for Bogans.
The final part of the "spontaneous" celebration was supposed to be the cutting of the nets. Superdome workers even stationed ladders under each basket to help with the task.
The Wildcats passed, strolling to the locker room with twine still dangling above their heads.
"Winning the championship here is special, but we don't want to cut the nets down twice," Bogans said. "We only want to cut down one set of nets."
During this trip to the Big Easy, Chuck Hayes picked up some beads. "I'll still have them if we come back," he said with a hopeful smile.
Teammate Gerald Fitch didn't even bother to buy any souvenirs. "I'm not taking anything with me. I'll get my reminders if we come back," he said.
A week of conference tournament upsets claimed most of the top 10, including No. 1 Arizona, No. 3 Texas and No. 4 Kansas.
Kentucky (29-3) hasn't slipped up since Dec. 28, when an 18-point loss to rival Louisville - and former Wildcats coach Rick Pitino - caused plenty of grumbling in Big Blue Country.
No one had any complaints Sunday, judging from the chants of "Tubby! Tubby! Tubby!" that filled the Superdome in tribute to often-maligned coach Tubby Smith.
Smith, who must deal with the demanding standards of the basketball-crazy Bluegrass State, said it was probably his most satisfying victory.
"I've never been undefeated in a conference, and then to be the top team in the tournament," he said. "I see how these young men have come around and played unselfishly. Basketball is a beautiful thing when it's played that way."
The Wildcats became the first team in 51 years to go undefeated in SEC play during the regular season and then win the conference tournament.
The last? Kentucky, of course, which has won more league tourneys than the rest of the league combined.
This one wasn't easy.
The Wildcats trailed at the half for the first time in more than two months and then clung to victory in the final two minutes.
"It was a very physical game, inside and outside," said Marquis Estill, who scored 13 points and stifled State star Mario Austin at the defensive end. "It was a lot of fun."
Winsome Frazier hit a 3-pointer to bring Mississippi State (21-9) within 56-55 with 2:42 remaining, and the Bulldogs had a chance to go ahead when Austin was fouled as he went up for an offensive rebound with 1:51 to go.
But Austin, who announced last week that he would return to school for his senior season, missed both free throws. That was only appropriate, since he went 3-of-14 from the field and finished with nine points.
The Bulldogs' other key player, point guard Derrick Zimmerman, didn't fare much better. He was 3-of-13 shooting and had more turnovers (seven) than assists (five).
"Kentucky's the team to beat," Stansbury said. "They're going to be back here in New Orleans. The question is: Who's going to be the other three teams with them?"
After Austin's missed free throws, Kentucky outscored the Bulldogs 8-2 the rest of the way, beginning with Estill's lay-in with 1:24 remaining. Hayes and Bogans each made two free throws to seal the victory.
At the buzzer, Bogans hurled the ball into the air, his personal comeback complete. Two years ago, the guard wanted to go pro after his sophomore season, but a poor workout at a pre-draft camp shook him back to reality.
He returned to school but disappointed again, struggling all season to find his jump shot. He turned things around as a senior, earning player of the year honors from the league coaches and backing it up in the SEC tournament.
Bogans was 6-of-13 from the field, including three 3-pointers. He had seven rebounds, two assists, a steal and a blocked shot.
"Keith was great," Fitch said. "That's no surprise to me."
Mississippi State led for the final 10:23 of the first half, going to the break with a 31-30 lead. It was the first time since Jan. 14 that Kentucky trailed at halftime.
In that game at Vanderbilt, the Wildcats rebounded from a 36-28 deficit by outscoring Vanderbilt 46-16 in the second half to win in a rout.
Kentucky didn't pull away in this one, shooting 50 percent (22-of-44) but hampering its offense with 19 turnovers.
The Wildcats went ahead for good at 36-35 when Erik Daniels made a free throw with 16:47 remaining. Kentucky pushed the lead to 48-39 with 12? minutes remaining, then survived a hectic finish.
Timmy Bowers scored 13 points to lead the Bulldogs, who shot only 36 percent (22-of-61). They failed to repeat as tournament champions or duplicate their 1996 run, when they upset Kentucky in the championship game.
That year, Kentucky had gone unbeaten in the SEC during the regular season. Both teams went on to play in the Final Four, with Kentucky winning it all.
Despite this loss, Mississippi State was assured on an NCAA bid after winning the SEC Western Division. Maybe they'll make it back to New Orleans, as well.
"If we get another chance to play Kentucky in the national championship game, we'd love it," Stansbury said. "I wouldn't want to open up with them."