If they awarded style points, the first couple minutes would have been very interesting.
Kentucky and Tennessee – a pair of top 15 teams – opened their Southeastern Conference tournament semifinal Saturday like a couple peacocks, each strutting their stuff in a manner meant to outdo the other and to impress the sellout crowd of 20,207 at Bridgestone Arena. Four of the game’s first six baskets were dunks, including a pair of offsetting alley-oops.
Eventually, though, it was the second-ranked Wildcats who displayed significantly more substance. They outshot the Volunteers, outrebounded them and – most importantly – outscored them 74-45 and advanced to the tournament title game for the 34th time in their storied history.
They also dealt coach Bruce Pearl the most lopsided defeat of his UT tenure.
“It was a real struggle to score against them,” Pearl said. “It required a tremendous amount of energy to get open and to get good looks. And we just didn’t have it.”
Freshman DeMarcus Cousins provided a lot of the dazzle for No. 2 Kentucky (31-2). He led all scorers with 19 points, more than half of which came on slams, and if not for a fundamental flaw in his game – he made just three of his first 13 free throw attempts – he would have had a lot more. Cousins also had a game-high 15 rebounds.
Eric Bledsoe, also a freshman, kept the scoreboard turning throughout the second half when he made four of his five 3-pointers and scored 12 of his 17 points. He alone accounted for one half of the combined 3-pointers made by the two teams.
The bridge between the flair and the fundamentals was SEC Player of the Year John Wall (yes, he’s a freshman too). Wall finished with 14 points, nine assists and six rebounds.
The 15th-ranked Volunteers (25-8), playing their third game in as many days, shot just 30.9 percent from the field and simply could not keep pace as they were held to their lowest point total of the season.
They cut a 13-point halftime deficit to eight twice within the first five minutes of the second half but missed on several opportunities to get closer. Their only points over the final eight minutes came on a dunk by Kenny Hall and two free throws by Skylar McBee.
Scotty Hopson, with 11 points, was the only UT player who scored in double figures.
Eventually, all the posturing and attempts at one-upsmanship proved problematic as the final 20 minutes featured a pair of double technicals, and a flagrant foul against Tennessee guard Melvin Goins, who was ejected with 3:33 to play.
“We just didn’t get stuff to fall,” senior forward J.P. Prince said. “We had a lot of stuff rim out, easy layups and stuff missed. … They made big shots when they had to, and we couldn’t get over that hump.”
Of course, that only brought out the best in Cousins, who made each of his final four free throw attempts, the first two of which were awarded as a result of the flagrant foul on Goins.
Kentucky will face the winner of Saturday’s second semifinal between No. 20 Vanderbilt (24-7) and Mississippi State (22-10), which is scheduled to tip at approximately 2:40 p.m. (CST), in Sunday’s championship game (noon, ABC).