South Carolina 65, Kentucky 61
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—South Carolina’s only chance to get into the NCAA tournament was to earn an automatic bid by winning the Southeastern Conference tourney.
It seemed unlikely a fifth seed could pull it off, but the Gamecocks are a win away from their goal.
South Carolina reached the SEC tournament final for just the second time with a 65-61 win over Kentucky on Saturday behind 18 points from Tarence Kinsey.
Tre Kelley added 13 and Bryce Sheldon had 12 for South Carolina (18-14), which will play No. 16 Florida for the title Sunday.
“It would have sounded crazy to people outside of this basketball team, but we believed. We didn’t come here to play one or two games. We came to win a championship,” Kelley said.
The Wildcats (21-12) entered the game with a 34-2 record in tournament semifinal games and were trying to win their 26th tournament crown despite a disappointing regular season.
South Carolina, which won the NIT last season, also struggled during the year. The Gamecocks lost twice to the Wildcats—including in January on a 3-pointer by Kentucky’s Rajon Rondo with 1 second left.
South Carolina beat Mississippi State in the first round and dispatched East division winner Tennessee in the quarterfinals. Only one team—Arkansas in 2000—has ever won the SEC tournament by winning four games since the league split into divisions in 1992.
The Gamecocks’ only trip to the final was in 1998 when they lost to—who else?—Kentucky.
South Carolina is the lowest seed to be in the semifinals since the Gamecocks made it 2002 as a sixth seed.
South Carolina coach Dave Odom didn’t want his team thinking about an NCAA tournament berth.
“I made a conscious decision before the tournament began that I would not say to our team the only one to the NCAA tournament is through the conference championship,” Odom said. “Our team knows they’re playing in a championship game tomorrow. I’m going to push them to win that thing. I’m going to push them as hard as I can.”
Tubby Smith has won at least one kind of championship every year he’s been coach at Kentucky. Now, he’s not even sure his Wildcats are in the NCAA tournament.
“I’m not absolutely convinced of nothing,” he said. “I think we should get an opportunity. I believe we will.”
Smith feels pretty good about how his team has played.
“We’ve been doing some things well. That’s how we got to the semifinals,” he said. “I thought we matched South Carolina’s energy for the most part, but you’ve got to make some clutch shots and clutch stops.”
In an atmosphere that resembled Rupp Arena with the majority of fans cheering Big Blue, South Carolina was not intimidated.
Trailing 50-45 in the second half, South Carolina went on a 14-3 run that was highlighted by a barrage of 3-pointers.
Bryce Sheldon tied at 50 with one. Then Kinsey and Sheldon hit two more around a 3 for Kentucky by Joe Crawford. Kinsey sank another to put South Carolina ahead 59-53 with 5:41 remaining.
The Wildcats could get no closer than three the rest of the way.
Crawford, who led Kentucky with 13 points, could have cut it to two but he missed the second of two free throws with 1:56 remaining.
With 1:01 left, Kentucky started fouling to get the ball back, but the Wildcats only had three team fouls at that point. The Gamecocks didn’t get to the foul line until there were fewer than 20 seconds left.
South Carolina pushed it to 63-58 with 33.9 seconds to go on Brandon Wallace’s dunk. Kentucky’s Patrick Sparks and Rondo each missed 3s before Wallace added another free throw for the Gamecocks with 18.6 seconds to go. Ravi Moss hit a 3 for Kentucky with 12.2 seconds remaining, but the Wildcats didn’t score again.
Randolph Morris added 12 points for the Wildcats while Sparks was held to nine points from two 3s in the first half and only one after halftime.
Kentucky appeared to have the momentum several times, but South Carolina came back each time. The Wildcats went up by six early in the second half. Then Kelley and Kinsey hit back-to-back 3s for the Gamecocks to tie it at 45, one of seven ties in the half.
The teams were tied twice in the first half after Kentucky led early. But after it was 20-20, Kelley hit a 3 before the shot clock expired with 6:20 to go, and South Carolina was ahead the rest of the half.