By ELIZABETH A. DAVIS<
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Randolph Morris scored 17 points and Kentucky needed a late surge to beat Mississippi 71-57 in the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament on Thursday.
The Wildcats (20-11), who strengthened their case for an NCAA bid, had not played on the opening day of this tournament since 1979. It was the first time Kentucky failed to earn a first-round bye since the SEC split into divisions in 1992.
A large contingent of Big Blue fans showed up as usual to make Kentucky feel right at home, but nothing has come easy for the Wildcats this season and that didn’t change against Ole Miss.
Bam Doyne had a jumper to tie it at 46 for the Rebels with 6:34 remaining, but Kentucky went on a 13-2 run to take command and go ahead by 11. Morris and Rajon Rondo each scored twice during the spurt with Rondo making a long 3-pointer as the shot clock was about to expire.
Alabama, the West’s No. 2 seed, is the Wildcats’ opponent in the quarterfinals on Friday.
Ole Miss (14-16) tried to make coach Rod Barnes’ final game memorable by leading most of the first half and keeping it close late. School officials announced last week Barnes would not return next season after eight years. When the buzzer sounded, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith hugged his friend Barnes at midcourt.
The Rebels were much more competitive than in their 80-40 drubbing at Kentucky on Feb. 22 with leading scorer and rebounder Dwayne Curtis. He missed the first game to be at his brother’s funeral.
Patrick Sparks added 14 points, and Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford each had 11 for Kentucky.
Jermey Parnell led Ole Miss with 14 points while Curtis had 13 points and eight rebounds and Doyne added 11.
Bradley played for the first time since breaking his left hand in practice on Feb. 20. He missed the final four regular-season games and was wearing a bandage that covered the bottom half of his hand.
Morris, Rondo and Crawford returned to the starting lineup for the first time since Feb. 11, a loss at Vanderbilt that was the Wildcats’ third in a row. After shuffling the lineup, Kentucky finished the regular season winning four of its last six.
Kentucky is aiming for a 26th SEC tournament crown. The Wildcats have won 25, more than all the other schools combined.
In Smith’s previous eight years as Kentucky’s coach, the Wildcats have won some kind of championship from the East division title to tournament crown. This is the first year without any trophies so far, but the Wildcats reached 20 wins for the 16th straight season.