NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—John Calipari brought Kentucky to town focused most on the NCAA tournament.
An arena dripping Kentucky blue with Wildcats faithful filling the streets outside has changed his intentions, and now Calipari wants to reward their loyalty by winning the Southeastern Conference tournament title those fans see as their birthright.
Oh, he still wants a No. 1 seed.
The No. 2 Wildcats made a strong argument for the top overall spot by handing 15th-ranked Tennessee a 74-45 loss Saturday in the tournament semifinals — the Volunteers’ most lopsided under coach Bruce Pearl. But Calipari said he understands the importance after seeing fans spending up to $1,000 per ticket and vacationing in Nashville to support the Cats.
“As a coach you owe it to them to give them your best,” Calipari said. “They tell me 180,000 fans came to Nashville. Is that true? Kentucky fans. And only 17,000 could get in the building. … It’s unbelievable. The blue dust is everywhere. It’s incredible.”
Kentucky (31-2) will play defending champ Mississippi State, a 62-52 winner over No. 20 Vanderbilt, on Sunday, looking to add a 26th tournament title to the 44th regular season championship the Wildcats already won in Calipari’s first season.
DeMarcus Cousins had 19 points and 15 rebounds as Kentucky advanced to the final for the first time since 2004. Eric Bledsoe had 17 points on 5-of-8 shooting from 3-point range, and John Wall added 14. The Wildcats improved to a league-best 113-22 in this tournament and 35-2 in the semifinals.
Bledsoe said winning the tournament title would mean a lot to a team featuring five freshmen.
“We’re trying to do something special. So far we’re doing it, so we’re going to keep on playing,” Bledsoe said.
Scotty Hopson had 11 points for Tennessee (25-8), which snapped a five-game winning streak with its worst scoring performance this season.
“We got outplayed at every position, and Kentucky’s the No. 2 team in the country for a reason. They’re a really, really good team,” Pearl said. “We just did not have the energy after playing two games and coming back and playing this third game. We just didn’t have it.”
The well-rested Wildcats never trailed and scored 14 straight points to push the lead to 29 late. That was even though Cousins missed a layup off the opening tip. He came back and dunked to put Kentucky ahead, and the best Tennessee could do was tie the Wildcats three times—the last at 10.
These programs don’t like each other anyway in the SEC’s second-longest series. The addition of Calipari, who brought his personal rivalry with Pearl from Memphis, and the high expectations from both teams created an electric atmosphere not seen at this tournament in many years.
Kentucky came in trying to cement a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, while Tennessee hoped a win would help earn a No. 3 seed.
It was billed as a neutral court game, but the transformation of Bridgestone Arena into Rupp South couldn’t have been clearer than a text poll in the first half posted on the video board about which team fans expected to win. Kentucky drew 77 percent in the early results.
Every time Tennessee’s pep band cranked up “Rocky Top,” the Wildcats’ fans did their best to drown it out, chanting, “Go Big Blue.”
Tennessee point guard Bobby Maze noticed the blue crowd in the quarterfinals and said Kentucky fans travel like the “Million Man March.” So the Vols knew exactly what they’d be walking into on a court technically in their home state but about three hours away from campus—just as it is for the Wildcats.
And Pearl had his orange blazer packed and ready for this game against the opponent Tennessee wants to measure its basketball program against. The Vols were the last team to beat Kentucky—74-65 in Knoxville on Feb. 27—as they split the regular season series.
“We had enough fans in there that when we made our runs, we could hear our people in the building,” Pearl said. “Certainly, Kentucky enjoys a great home-court advantage, and I think it elevated their play.”
Yes, it did.
Kentucky wound up winning its fourth straight by holding Tennessee to a season-low 19 points in the first half. The Wildcats improved to 5-1 in SEC semifinals and 144-66 all-time against the Vols.
“I feel like we were playing at our arena to see our fans there,” Wall said. “We just feel like everywhere we go our fans support us the most. … You can see how loud they are in the background.”
The Volunteers, playing their third game in as many days, got into early foul trouble, and they spent more time pleading with officials than hitting shots. Kentucky did hit more free throws (16-of-30) than Tennessee attempted (9-of-15).
Officials were busy, handing out double technicals twice in the second half with Tennessee guard Melvin Goins ejected after both a technical and a flagrant foul with 3:33 left.
“They obviously had us frustrated,” senior guard J.P. Prince said. “We didn’t make shots. We just got in a hurry. We kind of lost our composure at the end and didn’t execute, listen to the coaches and overall just kind of let it go at the end.”
Tennessee pulled within 45-39 on a bucket by Brian Williams with 9:27 left. That was as close as the Vols would get.
Patrick Patterson dunked for only his second field goal, Bledsoe hit a 3, then Darnell Dodson made consecutive 3s before dunking on an alley-oop pass from Darius Miller to put Kentucky up 58-41 with 6:02 remaining. The Cats just kept adding to it from there.