College Basketball Nation: 2012 SEC tournament

NEW ORLEANS -- As little as this game might have mattered to Kentucky, it meant the world to Vanderbilt.

The mighty Wildcats, winners of the SEC regular season by a dominant margin and champions of 27 other SEC tournaments, won't lose any face in light of a 71-64 loss at the hands of an inspired Commodores squad.

It took 19 games, and two prior losses, but someone in the SEC finally cracked the Wildcats.

But while the Cats lick their wounds and prepare for the NCAA tournament (where they'll still be a No. 1 seed), this is a moment Vandy will cherish for quite some time.

"Kentucky, they set the bar. They set the bar nationally this year, they set the bar in our league almost every year," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. "We're proud to have beaten them -- proud to have won a SEC championship."

It's hard to pinpoint just one moment that showcased how badly the Commodores wanted their first championship since 1951. It could have been when Stallings received a technical foul for badgering the refs over a contested call. It may have been the Herculean effort from senior forward Festus Ezeli, who controlled the post for 17 points and six boards against Kentucky's otherworldly frontcourt.

[+] EnlargeVanderbilt's Kevin Stallings and John Jenkins
Chuck Cook/US PRESSWIREKevin Stallings and John Jenkins embrace following Vanderbilt's win over Kentucky for the SEC tournament title.
"First off, congrats to Vanderbilt. They got anything they wanted in the post," said Kentucky phenom Anthony Davis, who was frustrated in the paint all afternoon. "They got good position and it was hard for us to fight around it."

The emotion finally spilled over when the final horn sounded, as the Dores mobbed each other at midcourt and TV cameras caught Stallings crying into a towel.

It shined through in the winning locker room, where players blared music and took photos of each other posing with the tournament's hulking pyramid of a trophy.

Asked where the moment registered on a scale of 1-10, Ezeli broke the chart.

"I can't even describe. It might be a 15, I don't know," he said with a grin. "It feels awesome. It feels great."

It might have been even better for John Jenkins, who secured tournament MVP honors with 17 points against the Wildcats. Jenkins, whose grandmother died last week, needed several minutes to collect himself from the court after the score went final.

"It's been really tough for me. So just being out here with my teammates and the coaches has been kind of an outlet for me," he said. "To win the championship after 60-some years is incredible."

Like Kentucky, the Commodores were assured of a ticket to the Big Dance regardless of the outcome of this game. Vandy looks likely to receive a No. 4 or No. 5 seed to next week's NCAA tournament, but Stallings said his senior-heavy squad accomplished so much more Sunday than postseason seeding.

"They have done things today, it's just -- today is just another thing," Stallings said. "They have done things for Vanderbilt basketball that have never been done before. They have raised the awareness of our program. They have raised the status of our program."

To their credit, the Wildcats said nothing to cheapen that accomplishment. It would be easy to shrug off the loss as meaningless. Kentucky had not lost a game since Dec. 10, and the thought has been kicked around the Big Blue Nation that another setback might do their young stars some good before making a national championship run.

To a man, the losing Wildcats insisted that wasn't the case.

"We played hard like it was our last game, every game of this tournament," said sophomore guard Doron Lamb. "The teams we played played us three times, so they knew what we were going to do, and they know everything we've got."

Even senior Darius Miller, who caught fire for 16 points, was unwilling to let the loss go as insignificant.

"We all hate losing. We're pretty competitive people," he said. "The overall vision is, did we win or lose? And we lost tonight."

There will be other games for both teams. When this year's brackets come out in a few short hours, the Final Four will become the focus and the conference tournaments will be nothing but an afterthought.

Just don't tell that to the Commodores.

NEW ORLEANS — Vanderbilt broke its 61-year championship dry spell Sunday with a 71-64 win against No. 1 Kentucky. Here are some quick impressions from the Selection Sunday upset.

Overview: Vanderbilt's bad first-half shooting against Georgia and Ole Miss seemed like a distant memory on Sunday. Just like Florida the day before, the Commodores came out firing on all cylinders against Kentucky.

Jeffery Taylor shook off the sting of two awful days in the quarters and semis to score 13 first-half points, and the Dores rode their good shooting to a lead as big as eight in the first half. Just like we've seen all weekend, the Wildcats' instincts kicked in when threatened, and they charged back to force a halftime tie. Kyle Wiltjer, whose name was hardly heard during the tournament, kicked in two big 3s to lead the rally.

Darius Miller earned just his 11th start of the season against the Commodores, and he responded by leading the Kentucky scoring effort.

Anthony Davis turned 19 on Sunday, and received a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday" from about 15,000 Kentucky fans. Davis certainly looked like a teenager going against Vanderbilt fifth-year senior forward Festus Ezeli. Ezeli helped limit Davis to a pedestrian 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Terrence Jones sparked the Wildcats' offense in the second half for the third straight day with a pair of rousing dunks to swing momentum toward Kentucky. The Cats had several opportunities to put the game away in the dying minutes, whether it was one of Jones' dunks or a big 3 from Miller. With an enormously pro-Cats crowd, it seemed like the game was on the verge of breaking open at any minute.

Credit Taylor and Ezeli that it didn't. Ezeli continually managed to get Vandy to the line, and although he wasn't superb with his shots, it was enough. When Taylor hit a running layup to make it a 62-59 game with four to play, it was obvious the game would go down to the wire.

Turning point: The Dores were pretty mediocre from the foul line, which has been a season-long trend. But with the championship on the line, they delivered. Kedren Johnson put Vandy ahead when he drilled a running layup while being fouled to take a 64-62 lead. He hit the free throw to make it a three-point lead.

Moments later, with the lead cut back to two, Ezeli delivered two more big freebies to push the margin to four. The Wildcats started lofting (and missing) 3s, forcing them to foul. In the final 25 seconds, John Jenkins went 4-of-4 from the line to put the game out of reach.

Key player: After an awful, awful oh-for performance against Ole Miss, Ezeli shined brightly for Vandy in the post. The senior had 17 points and six rebounds, and was a clutch 7-of-10 from the free throw line when the Commodores needed points. His defensive effort on Davis cannot be understated. Ezeli imposed his will on the SEC Player of the Year in the paint, and forced Davis to settle for free throws.

It's a testament to the talent on Kentucky's roster that Darius Miller spent most of his season coming off the bench. The senior was named the SEC Sixth Man of the Year at the conclusion of the regular season, but he was first-class on Sunday afternoon with 16 points, four assists and just one turnover.

Key stat: Kentucky shot just 35.9 percent from the field. Even worse than that, the Wildcats connected on just 6 of 28 treys.

Miscellaneous: Taylor more than doubled his point total from the Commodores' first two games of the tournament. He finished with 18 on the day.

What's next: Regardless of the setback, two-loss Kentucky is still assured a No. 1 seed in the coming NCAA tournament. Vanderbilt was a No. 5 seed in Joe Lunardi's most recent Bracketology report. It will be interesting to see if a championship improves its standing.

SEC championship: Sunday preview

March, 11, 2012
NEW ORLEANS -- Forty more minutes remain in the SEC season on this holiest of days: Selection Sunday.

Regardless of who wins today's championship game between Kentucky and Vanderbilt, both teams are assured of strong seeding and a bright outlook in the NCAA tournament. But the eventual champion, be it the Cats or Commodores, will have accomplished something pretty remarkable. With a win, Kentucky would cap an utterly dominant 19-0 blitz through the SEC en route to the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats would likely claim the top spot even with a loss, but where's the pizzazz in that?

The Commodores are playing for their first championship since a 1993 SEC regular-season title, and their first tournament championship since the 1951 season. This is Vandy's first trip back to the final game since that season, 61 years ago. By comparison, a win today would give Kentucky its 28th tournament title.

Here are some thoughts on what to expect ahead of these teams' third meeting of the year.

Big names must show up: While reporters swarmed John Jenkins, Brad Tinsley and Lance Goulbourne after Vandy's semifinal win against Ole Miss, Jeffery Taylor sat off to the side and looked through his cell phone.

Few reporters bothered him, and he didn't share much in the excited vibe going through the Commodores' locker room.

The reason seems pretty obvious. Although they won their quarterfinal and semifinal matchups by 22 and 12, respectively, the Dores haven't looked quite like the hot-shooting team we're accustomed to seeing. They have come out to slow starts in both games, shooting 34 percent in the first half against the Bulldogs and 33 percent against Ole Miss.

Taylor's forgettable tournament (to this point) is a big part of that. The senior has just eight points through two games after averaging 16 per game for the season, and he's shooting 3-of-15 from the field. The Commodores also got past Ole Miss without seeing a single point from key forward Festus Ezeli.

That's not going to cut it against the Wildcats.

"In games against teams like the number one team in the country and maybe the best team in college basketball, if your marquee players don't play like marquee players, you might as well be spitting in the wind," said Vandy coach Kevin Stallings after the Ole Miss game.

Taylor, for his part, said confidence is key.

"If the ball doesn't go in, I think it hurts anybody," he said. "But I've been making shots all year, I've been playing really well all year. Two games isn't going to destroy my confidence."

Crunch time: Both of Kentucky's wins against the Commodores this season followed similar scripts. Vandy has been right there with the Cats in the dying minutes both times, but has faded. Two weeks ago in Lexington, the Dores trailed by as little as four with 2:42 to play. Kentucky went 3-of-3 from the field down the stretch and hit a bevy of free throws to hold on in a nine-point win.

A month ago in Nashville, Vandy actually led, 63-61, with four minutes left. The only problem is, the Commodores didn't score again, instead closing the game on a 0-of-9 cold streak in a six-point loss.

Vandy clearly has what it takes to keep pace. Is the third time the charm to finish strong?

Statement game: After a rocky, one-point performance in the first half against LSU, Anthony Davis has come on (surprise, surprise) to have a sterling showing at his first SEC tournament. Davis has posted double-doubles in both of Kentucky's games so far, highlighted by his 15 points and 12 boards on Saturday against Florida.

As good as he's been, he has yet to really take the lead in UK's two scrappy wins so far in this tournament, which says a lot about the caliber of season he has had. If he plays the way he did last time against Vanderbilt, there's almost no way to withstand the Wildcats. When the Commodores came to Rupp Arena on Feb. 25, Davis chalked up a career high of 28 points (10-of-11 shooting) to go with 11 boards and six blocks. Stallings put it succinctly when he said Davis "played like a dude."

If the freshman player of the year candidate has another big day, it's hard to envision anyone but Kentucky celebrating in the Big Easy.

NEW ORLEANS -- Kentucky coach John Calipari has made no bones about it; he does not like the SEC tournament.

It's an aggravation, and an understandable one at that. The Wildcats have spent the past three months making their case as the nation's best team, they've secured the league's regular-season title and, regardless of what happens in Sunday's championship game against Vanderbilt, they've secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Calipari's disdain for conference tournaments is well-documented, but that disdain is a luxury he can afford. Dating back to his days at Memphis, he has won six consecutive conference tournaments -- 2006-09 with the Tigers, and two in a row with Kentucky, with designs on a third.

As a program, Kentucky has no overwhelming need for another SEC tournament trophy, either. The Wildcats have claimed to 27 of the 52 SEC tournament championships, including the inaugural event in 1933 and the two most recent tournaments.

That attitude doesn't fly with Vanderbilt, which, after downing Ole Miss 65-53, enter the weekend's final game with hopes of ending the Wildcats' stranglehold on the tournament. In a jubilant post-semifinal locker room, despite the fact that they knew the NCAA tournament awaited in just five days, the Commodores insisted to a man on the importance of a tournament title.

The reason? The last time Vanderbilt was on this stage was 1951, the date of their lone tournament championship -- a full eight years before Calipari was born.

With history like that on the line, Commodores coach Kevin Stallings said it's easy to get motivated.

[+] EnlargeJohn Jenkins
Chuck Cook/US PresswireJohn Jenkins turned in another solid game for Vanderbilt, which can win its first SEC tourney title since 1951.
"You play to win. That's why you play. Our players actually informed me, because I didn't know this, but Jeffery Taylor informed me yesterday that it's the first time since 1951 that Vanderbilt's been in the championship of this conference tournament," Stallings said. "We appreciate that. We're proud of that. We're excited about that."

The excitement for a tangible milestone was evident in the Commodores' locker room. This program has made big advances in recent years, reaching five NCAA tournaments in the past decade with designs on a sixth next week. But Vandy hasn't lifted a championship trophy since it won the SEC regular-season title in 1993, and 1951 remains its lone tournament triumph.

"We know that it's really special to play for a championship. Not a lot of teams get to do that," said Vandy guard Brad Tinsley.

Tinsley, one of four senior starters to help Vanderbilt on its run of two (going on three) consecutive NCAA berths, said the chance to pick up some hardware is one the Commodores take seriously.

"When a lot of teams sit down and make their goals at the start of the season, it's to win a championship -- conference championship, NCAA championship, whatever it is," he said. "We have the opportunity to compete for one, and I think this team really looks forward to this opportunity."

As Stallings pointed out, his players were more aware of what's on the line than he was. Whether it was John Jenkins, who has been the Dores' heartbeat all season, Tinsley, or fellow senior Lance Goulbourne (who posted 10 points and 12 boards against Ole Miss), it seemed Vanderbilt's entire roster was focused on Sunday's possibilities rather than next week's tournament.

"We knew going into the game that Vandy hadn't been to the championship game since 1951, which was the only year they won the tournament," Goulbourne said. "It's pretty cool for us to be the team to break that streak, but it's not over for us yet. We want to win the championship -- just getting to the championship is not enough for us."

To pull that victory off, the Dores are in for 40 minutes of toil against one of the biggest, baddest rosters in the nation. Vanderbilt's date with the Wildcats will also be the both teams' third game in three days -- a careful stat to consider when the pair open their NCAA tournament runs late next week.

Regardless of that fatigue factor, Stallings said the Commodores will throw everything they've got at Calipari's Cats. Regardless of public perception, the chance at a championship isn't something to pass up.

"It's tough in every way when you play Kentucky. But we'll rest for a day or two after that and try to get ready to play on Thursday or Friday or whenever we get to play," Stallings said. "We can't worry about fatigue right now; we'll worry about fatigue when we're done. And hopefully that won't be for awhile."

NEW ORLEANS -- A few quick thoughts from Vanderbilt's 65-53 win against Ole Miss.

Overview: Ole Miss entered the semifinals with the same strategy that got them there. The Rebels played relentless defense against the talented Vanderbilt shooters, and they battled down low to draw 23 trips to the foul line.

It worked at the start. Vanderbilt had another disappointing day offensively after struggling with Georgia. The Rebels held the 'Dores to a mediocre 10-of-30 shooting in the first half. The game didn't actually see a basket for the opening three minutes, and Ole Miss trailed by just two at halftime. It was definitely a departure from the breakneck shooting spree that Kentucky and Florida played on the same floor.

When push came to shove, the Commodores talent shined through, just as it did against Georgia. Vandy upped its shooting to 50 percent after the break, and John Jenkins carried a subpar performance from his fellow starters.

Turning point: Ole Miss began flirting with disaster toward the middle of the second half. The Rebels allowed the lead to creep as large as seven and eight before bringing it within five. Leading 49-44 with 7:28 to play, the Vandy shooters showed up when they needed to. In a span of 90 seconds, Brad Tinsley hit a trey, followed by a Kedren Johnson jumper. Tinsley answered that with another 3 to complete an 8-0 run, and the Rebels were done.

Key player: Jenkins led the way with some help from Tinsley, just like Friday night. In the midst of another bad day by Jeffery Taylor, Jenkins threw up 23 points. He made 5-of-13 3s.

Key stat: Festus Ezeli, who made life so difficult on Georgia, was a total no-show. He got into foul trouble and managed no points in just 16 minutes.

The Rebels earned 23 free throws, but they didn't do enough with them. They only connected on 16, which wasn't going to cut it against Vandy's offense.

Miscellaneous: Lance Goulbourne replaced Ezeli's lost production in the post. The senior posted a quiet double-double of 10 and 12.

What's next: Vanderbilt earns a date for the SEC tournament championship Sunday against Kentucky. Ole Miss, which was likely playing for its postseason life after a surprising run to the semis, goes home and hopes for good news.

NEW ORLEANS -- Someone forgot to tell the SEC field it was supposed to lie down for its Wildcat overlords.

In a thrilling affair Saturday afternoon, the Florida Gators improved upon a trend LSU started in Friday's quarterfinals -- they pushed Kentucky to the very brink before falling short, 74-71, to the SEC regular-season champs.

This recent development is an unfamiliar one for a Wildcat squad that earned 12 of its perfect 16 SEC victories by double digits, but that's what happens in the postseason. The same Gator team that lost by 15 last week in Gainesville (and 20 last month in Lexington) came out white hot en route to a first-half lead that grew as large as 10 points.

Amazingly enough, the Gators stayed that way for the majority of a back-and-forth game, hitting Kentucky's smothering defense for 11 3-pointers and a team shooting percentage of 48.

"I don't know if that's happened all year. They shoot 50 percent, they make 11 3s," said Kentucky coach John Calipari. "They defended, they were physical, they got us inside and we were fortunate to walk out."

Like LSU before them, the Gators refused to go away, even when the Wildcats wrested control of the game. Halfway through the second half, Kentucky went on what looked like a game-altering 14-0 run, fueled by seven points from Terrence Jones, to take a nine point lead. Despite the hole, Florida battled back and cut the lead down to two in the final minute.

"They made shots," said forward Anthony Davis. "In the first two meetings they wasn't making shots at all -- all the guards struggled. Coach Cal told us no team is going to struggle three times ... some guys got left open, and we broke down defensively a lot. But some shots, they just made. They had hot hands."

Two close wins leave Calipari with plenty to ponder ahead of the Wildcats' conference championship game appearance Sunday, and things to work on before Kentucky begins its NCAA tournament run. The Gators had a field day with the Kentucky defense, and not just from 3-point land. Bradley Beal and Erik Murphy hit everything in sight, and Patric Young battled Jones and Davis relentlessly in the post.

"Florida came out and just played real good offense just by switching and trying to pass out for 3s, and knocking them down," Jones said. "It's tough playing a team three times, and we really had to switch up our offense."

[+] EnlargeMarquis Teague
Chuck Cook/US PresswireMarquis Teague bounced back from a quiet game against LSU, scoring 15 and adding five assists Saturday.
All that said, there's a more important message here than Kentucky playing like Cardiac Cats in the postseason: The Wildcats just took an NCAA tournament team's best shot (literally), and they weathered it.

Just like Friday against the Tigers, the young Wildcats stepped up when it looked like they might have an upset on their hands. Whether the production was looked for, (like Davis sinking an open 3 to give Kentucky a halftime lead), or more surprising (like Jones snapping out of a slump to lead the team's late surge), it always seemed to come when it was needed.

Jones, considered a veteran even as a sophomore on the Cats' young roster, said the freshmen are beginning to understand the necessity of clutch plays, even during the course of games.

"I think they're getting it while the game is going on and showing it by stepping up -- Anthony with a putback after a free throw, Marquis going to the line and knocking two down. I think they're getting it during the games," Jones said.

Point guard Marquis Teague embodied that mantra with a rebound performance to remember. Teague was the definition of a non-factor in the sloppy win against LSU. (He scored two points from the stripe and shot 0-of-5.) Against the Gators, he shined with 15 points and five assists. While Young and his teammates at times frustrated the Kentucky post players in an absurdly physical struggle under the paint, Teague had no trouble getting to the basket. The freshman cut through the defense time after time to shoot 67 percent on the day.

"It's hard playing point guard for us. It's hard in that position," Calipari said. "And like I told the team after, he was outstanding."

As an added bonus, Teague sank two free throws with 14 seconds remaining to give Kentucky a two-possession lead and clinch the win.

"It meant a lot," he said. "I wanted to step up to the line. I was confident ... I wanted to seal the win."

It was an intriguing turnaround for Teague, and for a team that acted almost as if it had lost following Friday's shaky win. It would be hard to blame the Wildcats for it, considering the last time (and only time) they tasted defeat was before Christmas.

But as they showed down the stretch against what would have to be considered Florida's best effort, the Wildcats are made of sterner stuff than that.

NEW ORLEANS -- Kentucky once again got all it asked for in the SEC tournament, and the Wildcats once again responded. Quick thoughts from UK's 74-71 win against Florida.

Overview: Billy Donovan referred to 3-pointers as "the great equalizer" Friday, and did that ever prove to be the case. The Gators led for all but 10 seconds of the first half, and built a lead as big as 10 points. The reason? An absurdly hot start from the arc (5-of-8 from deep in the first 12 minutes). The Gators were shooting as well as 62 percent from the field at one point in the first half, but they inevitably trailed off.

When they did, the Wildcats made their move. Kentucky outscored Florida 10-2 in the last five minutes of the first half, and an Anthony Davis 3 put the Wildcats up 40-39 at the buzzer.

The Gators rediscovered their spark after the break by connecting on their first four shots to re-establish the lead. The game settled into a grinding, physical affair for the next 10 or so minutes before gearing up for a fantastic final five minutes.

It looked like the Wildcats were primed to shrug the upset bid off when Terrence Jones blew up for seven points during an 11-0 Kentucky run. The Wildcats took a lead as big as nine points and appeared to have things under control, but the Gators' 3-point shooting once again pulled them close. Successful treys from Erik Murphy and Bradley Beal made it a 68-66 game entering the final minute.

Turning point: Holding the ball and the lead, Kentucky drew a foul under the basket with 37 seconds remaining. Jones, who finished with 15 points, sank both free throws to make it 70-66.

Murphy answered with a bank shot put-back with 17 seconds left. The Gators fouled, and Marquis Teague went to the line for two more shots -- both of which he made for a 72-68 lead. Florida bricked a 3-point attempt, and the game was effectively over.

Key player: The foul shots were icing on the cake for Teague. He had an ugly, ugly outing Friday against LSU, but he rebounded in fine form against the Gators. He didn't lead the team in scoring, but he earned every one of his 15 points with relentless and dizzying drives to the basket. Teague was probably Kentucky's most consistent weapon (6-of-9 from the floor). He also chipped in five assists to the Cats' bigs.

Key stat: Led by Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Wildcats grabbed a whopping 16 offensive boards, which led to 14 second-chance points.

Without the Gators' impressive 11-of-22 effort from the 3-point line, this game wouldn't have even been close. The basket must have looked 10 feet wide for Florida's marksmen.

Miscellaneous: Florida kept up its 3-point shooting barrage until the very death. Erving Walker hit one last 3 with two seconds on the clock, but with the Gators trailing by six, it didn't do much good.

What's next: Kentucky advances to the tournament championship game against either Vanderbilt or Ole Miss. The Gators were already a lock for the NCAA tournament, but a win against fellow tourney team Alabama and a strong effort against the nation's best team has to help their cause for a good seed.

SEC tournament: Saturday preview

March, 10, 2012
NEW ORLEANS -- For the most part, things have gone according to script through two days of the SEC tournament.

With the obvious exception of Kentucky, which cruised to the regular-season title, the SEC standings have been a muddled mess this season, and it has showed in the conference bracket. A total of just two games separated seeds No. 2 through No. 7, which helps explain why the majority of the competition here has been so fierce. Of the eight games that have been played to this point, five have been decided by 10 points or less. Two of Friday's quarterfinals came down to the last shot -- Alabama just missed a game-tying shot at the buzzer in a 66-63 loss to Florida, and Tennessee' Skylar McBee gave us some March magic with a game-tying bank shot to force overtime with Ole Miss. We didn't see a genuine blowout until the last game of the second round, when Vanderbilt pulled away from 11th-seeded Georgia.

Despite all of that, three of the tournament's top four seeds have advanced to the semifinals. Is it going to stay competitive? Are the games going to stay as brutally physical and defensive as they were Friday? Will Kentucky use this as a chance to flex its muscles? We'll know pretty soon.

Here are some other angles to consider as we await the semis:

1. Rivalry week: Today marks the second time in a week that Florida will have a chance to avenge a loss to its rivals, the Wildcats. The last attempt didn't go so well -- Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones threw down on the Gators in a 15-point win. Florida hasn't been much of a match for Kentucky in either of their first two meetings, to be sure. The Cats won by 20 in Lexington earlier in the year.

But even if there isn't as much sizzle to the rivalry this season, it's still fun to see Kentucky and Florida in a tournament semifinal in March. These two programs have carried the league banner for the league for much of the last decade, and they (mainly Kentucky) will be the SEC's best bets to make a run next week in the Big Dance.

2. Down with defense? Anyone who tuned into Friday's quarterfinals might have thought it was football season. We're five days out from the start of the NCAA tournament, but teams like LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee and even Vanderbilt were on the court throwing defensive haymakers. It was the type of stuff usually reserved for the gridiron.

Of course, the counterargument for how strong the defense looked was how bad the shooting was. Field goals were at a premium, as Tennessee can surely attest. The Volunteers managed just 15 baskets out of 58 attempts in regulation against Ole Miss. Florida and Vanderbilt, both of which can usually be depended on for offensive fireworks, struggled from the field, as well.

The Gators struggled to make baskets and needed a big day from the arc (10 of 20 from long range) to overcome the Crimson Tide. The Dores did just the opposite. They recovered from a sloppy first half to shoot 51 percent in the second half against Georgia, but an out-of-character 6-of-25 mark from 3-point range was a little troubling.

Despite their struggles, three of the league's best offenses will be in action Saturday. Will we see some firepower? Or does defense continue to dominate?

3. Rebels run: As far as the Big Dance goes, there's not a boatload of intrigue here. Kentucky looks guaranteed to earn a No. 1 NCAA seed regardless of whether it wins this tournament. Florida and Vandy can improve their seedings with wins, but both squads have secured a bid to next week's festivities.

That leaves Ole Miss. The Rebels remain in the field as the No. 7 seed and the spoiler, and they're riding some momentum. Friday's overtime win against the Volunteers was the Rebels' fifth in a row, and it gives hope (however faint) that they can make the postseason -- a win today would boost their record to 21-12.

If Ole Miss can shut down Vandy's plethora of shooters the way it did to Tennessee, it's got a shot at the championship game.

NEW ORLEANS -- A 22-point win tends to ease a team's missteps.

But for a team that relies as heavily on its shooting as Vanderbilt does, Friday's dismal first-half offense troubled coach Kevin Stallings.

The Commodores averaged 46 percent shooting as a team this season, and they led the SEC in 3-point percentage at 40. But in the first 20 minutes of the eventual 63-41 blowout against Georgia, Vanderbilt looked like it had forgotten what a jump shot looked like.

Those percentages, so vital to Vandy's success, dipped to 34 percent from the field and a troubling 23 percent from beyond the arc.

"In the first half, we were abysmal offensively, and it was really not good offense," Stallings said. "In the second half, we got more movement and [Festus Ezeli] started creating problems inside. We were just a lot more crisp."

It's true that the scoring effort picked up after the break. The shooting percentage jumped all the way up to 51 percent to bump the game average to a more respectable (and familiar) 43.9 percent. Most of that had to do with Ezeli causing problems in the paint, though, and the Commodores also added 14 points off turnovers.

"We did a better job of getting the ball to the basket, and things like that. ... We were getting the ball inside and trying to drive it inside, and not settling for as many jump shots," Stallings said.

A win is a win, especially in the postseason. But the road to that victory was unusual enough that Stallings looked nonplussed by it. The Commodores weren't just shaky, they were plain bad from 3-point range (6-of-25).

"You don't see us with 20-point victories when we go 6-of-25 from 3 and only shoot 11 foul shots," Stallings said. "Generally we're a good 3-point shooting team, and we get to the foul line a lot, and that's why we're a good offensive team. But tonight, obviously, it was much different than that."

[+] EnlargeFestus Ezeli
Crystal LoGiudice/US PresswireFestus Ezeli made his presence felt in Friday's second half as Vanderbilt put away Georgia.
Brad Tinsley was the only Vandy shooter who didn't seem to drop off against the Bulldogs. The Dores' usual duo of John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor, who lead the SEC in scoring, were ... OK. Taylor struggled to 6 points on 2-of-10 shooting. When he made his first and only 3-pointer of the night with 3:56 to play, he pumped his fists and looked toward the ceiling in exasperation, as if he had been worried he had lost his shot for good.

Jenkins' 15 points led the team -- perhaps it goes to show how valuable he is that his night seemed like a bad one. Regarding efforts like Friday's, Jenkins said the Commodores have to hope their defense shines the way it did against the Bulldogs -- who shot 22 percent as a team in the second half.

"We kind of wore them down a little bit with our defense, even though our offense wasn't clicking," he said. "We moved around a lot more and had the energy in the second half to make some shots, but not a lot."

Whatever issues Vandy has with its offense, the Dores don't have long to ponder them. The Georgia game ended a little after 11 p.m. Central time, and Saturday's semifinal against Ole Miss tips off at 2:30 p.m.

That leaves two issues to consider in not a lot of time: The Rebels put on a defensive showing of their own earlier Friday night. They held Tennessee to 28 percent -- a measly 18 field goals -- in an overtime game, no less. Granted, the Commodores bring better weapons to the court than do the Volunteers.

It's an interesting give-and-take. The Rebels looked stout in their win against Tennessee, while Vanderbilt's shooting fell apart against Georgia. Roughly a month ago in Oxford, the Commodores put on a terrifying shooting clinic against Ole Miss. They dropped 12 of 19 3-pointers and racked up 102 points.

So with a berth in the SEC tournament championship game at stake, who shines through?

"We played very well down there; still though, they're a different team now," Tinsley said. "It's the postseason -- a lot of teams are fired up and energized. It's going to be a tough one."
NEW ORLEANS -- A quick look at Vanderbilt's 63-41 victory over Georgia on Friday:

Overview: Georgia hung around against the Commodores using the same defense that baffled Mississippi State on Thursday night. The Bulldogs never got much going offensively, so it was good for them they kept up the defensive intensity. Georgia actually took a 25-24 lead into the locker room by holding Vanderbilt to a surprisingly low 34.6 team shooting percentage.

Yours truly opined that Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins would be two of the highlights of the quarterfinals. Taylor finished the first half with 1 point and only managed 6 total. Jenkins' 15 for the night fell short of his league-best average of 20 points.

The harassment continued well into the second half. The Bulldogs eventually fell behind, thanks to their lagging offense, but they managed to cut the deficit as close as four with about 13 minutes to play.

Turning point: Given enough time, the Commodores' weapons found their shots. Jenkins hit his stride, shooting 6 of 13; Brad Tinsley and Festus Ezeli chipped in 12 and 10, respectively.

When Georgia scored to make it 36-32, Vanderbilt went off. The Commodores went on a 27-9 tear to close out the game, burying the Bulldogs in every kind of offense. Jenkins and Lance Goulbourne hit consecutive 3s to start the run, and the Commodores went inside for 12 points.

In the span of about five minutes, it went from a scrappy fight to a Commodore runaway.

Key player: Jenkins' 15 led the Commodores in scoring, but it seemed like Tinsley sparked Vanderbilt to a stronger second half. The senior scored Vandy's first five points out of halftime, and he finished with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting.

Key stat: Georgia turned the ball over 17 times, shot 32 percent from the field and only 12 percent from 3-point range.

Miscellaneous: The Commodores hit 16 of 31 shots in the second half after burying only 9-of-26 in the first. It seemed like the Bulldog defense wore down toward the close, but who can blame them considering Vanderbilt's wide array of options.

What's next: Vanderbilt completes the field of four SEC semifinalists. It will face Ole Miss tomorrow afternoon for a berth in the conference title game. Georgia's season is over.

NEW ORLEANS -- What a fitting mascot this Ole Miss basketball team possesses.

Ole Miss uses the moniker of the Rebels, and rebelling is exactly what they're doing this weekend at the New Orleans Arena. They just keep winning games, thumbing their noses at the notion that their NCAA tournament bubble has burst; that a 20-12 record isn't good enough for the Big Dance; that March Madness is no place for a program with just six all-time tournament appearances.

Thanks to some clutch free throw shooting from senior forward Terrance Henry, the Rebels outlasted Tennessee, 77-72, in an exhausting overtime marathon Friday night. By doing so, they advanced to the SEC tournament semifinals for the first time since 2007.

"We haven't been to the semifinals since I've been here, and it's just great to still be playing," said Henry, who finished with 19 points.

It looked for all the world like the Rebels had blown the opportunity to keep playing. In an all-out slugfest, Ole Miss fought to a three-point lead against Tennessee with just nine seconds remaining. Against a team that was shooting below 30 percent on the night, coach Andy Kennedy opted not to foul, and the Volunteers made him pay.

Tennessee guard Skylar McBee tied the game on a 3-pointer -- a bank shot, no less -- with just two seconds remaining to force overtime in a game the Rebels seemed to have won.

[+] EnlargeOle Miss' Terrance Henry
Chuck Cook/US PRESSWIRETerrance Henry of Ole Miss scored 19 points against Tennessee, including several clutch free throws.
"I thought it was over with, man," Henry said. "I was like 'Man, he banked this in? We've got to go to overtime?' But we fought through it."

Added Kennedy: "The banks stay open late in Knoxville, I suppose."

But the Rebels responded with the aplomb you'd expect from a team on a five-game winning streak. Ole Miss went 5-of-7 from the field in overtime, and when McBee forced the issue by draining two more treys, Henry held on from the charity stripe.

"All of a sudden, our backs were really against the wall," Kennedy said. "It's never easy with us, but as I said, I could not be more proud of our guys. They dealt with a lot of adversity in that game."

In the postgame press conference, a reporter asked Henry if he felt he was shooting free throws with an NCAA tournament bid on the line -- a question which clearly took him off guard.

"I don't even know how to answer that," he said. "I just wanted to step up and make free throws. I'm the senior leader on the team, and Coach wants the ball in my hands in the last two minutes of the game. I just did what I was supposed to do."

Perhaps the wording was a little dramatic, but the point remains. As long as the Rebels are still playing basketball, their season can't be over. As every bubble team in the country is aware, if Ole Miss wins two more games, no one can keep them from the NCAA tournament. And as unlikely as that seems, it's not that much crazier than the thought of the Rebels riding a five-game winning streak into the tournament semifinals. Nor would it be more surprising than Henry and Company recovering from a gut-wrenching, game-tying 3-pointer to win an overtime game.

As the conference tournament field continues to shrink, Ole Miss remains as the fly in the SEC ointment. But as Kennedy said following the win, being a feel-good story won't be good enough. The Rebs won't be happy until they're dancing, and for that, there's probably more work to do.

"Being happy is not in my job description -- I've got to get this team prepared," Kennedy said. "I came into the locker room after that win, and it was not a celebratory locker room. And that's a good thing. It was a locker room that said, 'Hey, we did what we were supposed to do. We took care of business.'"
NEW ORLEANS -- Some quick musings from Ole Miss' thrilling 77-72 overtime win against Tennessee.

Overview: Truth be told, this was probably the least-hyped of the four quarterfinals. But it turned out to be a lot of fun. It was a game both teams needed to have to keep their iffy bubble hopes alive. Both the Vols and the Rebels entered the night riding four-game winning streaks, and dodging No. 1 Kentucky in the semifinals would give the winner a decent shot at making the tournament championship game.

With all of that riding on the line, the pair played each other to a standstill. They went into the locker room tied at 28, and the lead never got larger than six in either squad's favor during regulation.

After trailing for most of the second half, Tennessee found themselves down, 61-58, with 26 seconds remaining. Trae Golden took Tennessee down the floor and dished off to Skylar McBee at the left side of the arc, and McBee banked in from distance to send the game to overtime.

The trey was only Tennessee's 15th field goal. The Volunteers had a horrendously bad shooting night (28 percent)

Turning point: The Rebels weren't discouraged by McBee's heroics. They took control right off the bat in the extra period, showing an offensive consistency that eluded both teams for most of the night. Tennessee scored the first points of overtime, but Ole Miss responded by scoring on five straight trips down the floor to take a seven point lead.

McBee did his best to keep Tennessee in it with two more 3s in overtime. Thanks to a pair of missed free throws by Ladarius White, the Volunteers were able to cut it as close as 74-72 in the final minute. Terrance Henry saved the day for the Rebels by going 3-of-4 from the stripe in the final 14 seconds.

Key player: Henry did more than just sink clutch free throws. He led the Rebs in scoring (19 points) and added seven boards in a healthy 38 of 45 minutes. He made 1o of his 12 free throws to lead Ole Miss from the line. And he managed all of that despite playing a big chunk of the game in foul trouble.

Key stat: Much like Florida in the Gators' earlier quarterfinal, the Volunteers used the deep ball to offset their awful shooting. Tennessee went 11-of-34 from the 3-point line, highlighted obviously by McBee's last gasp bank shot. Ole Miss only managed 2-of-4 from long range. The Volunteers also took a ridiculous 33 free throws and hit on 25 of them.

Miscellaneous: Nick Williams couldn't follow up on his monstrous 22-point performance against Auburn. If his barrage of 3-pointers against the Tigers was a feast, Friday night was a famine. Williams shot 2-of-11 and scored just five points.

What's next: Ole Miss goes back to its hotel and waits to see who it will face between Georgia and Vanderbilt. Tennessee goes back to Knoxville and waits to learn of its postseason fate.

Gators eye Round 3 with Kentucky

March, 9, 2012

NEW ORLEANS -- The moment Trevor Lacey's buzzer-beater bricked off the rim and Florida's win against Alabama became final, the thought set in.

The No. 19 Gators put the skids on a three-game losing streak and advanced to the SEC tournament semifinals with a 66-63 win Friday. The only problem is, the menace that awaits them is top-ranked Kentucky, their two-time tormentors from earlier this season. In less than 24 hours, Florida faces the prospect of three losses in three tries to the Wildcats.

"We definitely don't want to be swept," Florida guard Kenny Boynton said. "We've got to come out tomorrow and play hard -- stay focused throughout the whole game."

Florida hasn't just dropped two games to its bitter basketball rivals, either. The Wildcats walloped the Gators in both meetings, by margins of 20 at Rupp Arena and 15 in Gainesville. One of those losses came last week, when Kentucky went on a 15-4 run during the last 8:36 to cap a perfect SEC season.

The wounds of that loss are still fresh, especially since it capped Florida's three-game slide to end the regular season. But Florida coach Billy Donovan said the quick turnaround could play into his team's favor. With so little time between games, the Gators should know exactly what to expect -- but then again, so will the Wildcats.

"I just think that in competition, the ebbs and flows sometimes of the way your team can look in a 48-hour period, 24-hour period is -- you never really know," Donovan said.

As little a difference as it might have made, the Gators players were quick to point out their improvement in the teams' second game, as well as their potential in this third meeting.

"We only lost by 15 last time," said Patric Young with a rueful laugh. "I think we know exactly what to expect out of these guys. I don't think they give us much respect, but we're going to go out there and play hard, and hopefully it will be different this time."

[+] EnlargePatric Young
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertAfter defeating Alabama on Friday, Patric Young and Florida will brace themselves for another battle with No. 1 Kentucky.
Young was a force in the teams' meeting last week. The sophomore squared off with Anthony Davis and came out with 21 points and nine boards, finishing just behind his rival big man (Davis posted 22 and 12).

"He just plays straight behind you and times your shot so he can block it every time. ... He doesn't even have to jump high because he's so long," Young said.

Davis broke out some talents that Young and his teammates weren't ready for last week, and that knowledge gives Florida something extra to worry about.

"He showed different aspects of his game -- he drove to the basket a few times, he knocked down a 3," Young said. "And he still does his alley-oop thing. ... If he keeps doing stuff like that he definitely is their best player."

The Gators might have gotten a win against Alabama on Friday afternoon, but if their defense against Tide forward JaMychal Green is any indicator, they could be in trouble against the mighty UK duo of Davis and Terrence Jones. Green essentially did what he wanted to against Florida. He went for 22 points and 10 boards. On top of that, he limited Young to six points and helped foul him out of the game.

"The problem was on the defensive end of the floor," Donovan said. "We would get a stop and we wouldn't come down with the ball, wouldn't come down with the rebound. Green tipping it back in, loose ball, they came down with it, and it gave them an extra possession in the game."

As if Florida needed something else working against it, there's the added factor of the New Orleans Arena -- or Rupp Arena South, as it might as well be called. It's nothing new for Kentucky fans to travel in droves, and they've done it again in 2012. It isn't an ideal scenario, but as members of the SEC, it's something the Gators have gotten used to.

"It's my third year here, so I know in the SEC tournament they come every year with their team," Boynton said. "It's not a surprise. ... We played Kentucky in Atlanta last year, and that was basically a road game, so we know what to expect."

In every aspect of this rematch, it seems the Gators know what to expect. The question now is can they do anything about it?

NEW ORLEANS -- A look at Florida's rugged win against Alabama.

Overview: JaMychal Green made quite a difference in Alabama's SEC quarterfinal rematch with Florida, but it wasn't quite enough.

Green, who missed the teams' first meeting because of a suspension, dominated to the tune of 22 points and 10 rebounds against the Gators, but it wasn't enough for the Crimson Tide.

Unfortunately for Green, a missed free throw in the dying seconds will probably offset a fantastic performance, in his mind.

The Crimson Tide buried a 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer, cutting a five-point UF lead to 26-24. The Gators tried to pull away in the second half, building a lead that got as big as 12. But the Tide surged back behind the efforts of Green, who took 14 of the Tide's 45 shots and connected on seven.

Turning point: Green went to the free throw line with a chance to tie the game with 21 seconds left. He was superb for Alabama all day, but he connected on only the first of his two shots, leaving the Tide at a 64-63 disadvantage.

With just seconds remaining, the Tide had to foul, and Kenny Boynton hit his free throws to make it 66-63. After hitting a late 3 to bury South Carolina on Thursday, Trevor Lacey got the call again, but his shot at the buzzer clanged off the rim.

Key player: Bradley Beal carried the Gators for most of the afternoon. He led the team with 16 points and connected on 7 of 8 free throws. But Boynton stepped up in crunch time. He scored five of his 14 in the final two minutes. They were Florida's last five points.

Key stat: The Tide nearly doubled up the Gators in the paint, outscoring Florida 38-20. The Gators didn't shoot very well from downtown, but their nine total 3-pointers helped offset the lack of post production.

Miscellaneous: Alabama shot a whopping 15 percent better from the field than Florida. But the Tide turned it over 11 times to the Gators' five.

What's next: Florida gets a third game against No. 1 Kentucky in one of the semifinals. The Wildcats handled the Gators in both regular-season meetings. Alabama is most likely in the Big Dance. Now it waits to see where, and hopes there are no nasty surprises.

NEW ORLEANS -- For all the pomp and circumstance, for all the aura and the backing of the Big Blue Nation, despite the parade of blowout wins, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said he had butterflies.

Kentucky's freshman guard led all scorers in the No. 1 Wildcats' 60-51 quarterfinal win against LSU. But as routine as another Kentucky win might have looked, Kidd-Gilchrist said it was new territory for the Wildcats' young roster.

"It was our first tournament game," he said. "I was really nervous coming into the game, but I found myself."

That statement could describe Kentucky's entire team in a performance that started sloppy, but finished strong to boost the Wildcats into the SEC tournament semifinals. Kentucky turned the ball over nine times and shot 32 percent from the field in the first half against the Tigers. Against an LSU team playing to preserve its season, the Wildcats found themselves trailing for much of the first half.

"They were playing out of desperation, and our players are so young, they didn't understand," said Kentucky coach John Calipari. "That's what's going to happen from here on out. Every game we play, someone's in desperation."

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Chris Graythen/Getty Images"It was our first tournament game," Michael Kidd-Gilchrist says. "I was really nervous coming into the game, but I found myself."
The Wildcats certainly didn't look like they understood. Super-freshman Anthony Davis picked up two early fouls and went into halftime with six rebounds and just one point. If not for the efforts of Kidd-Gilchrist, who got to the free throw line eight times in the first half, the Wildcats could have been in a much worse position than a 25-24 lead at the break.

"In the first half, it was Michael by himself," Calipari said. "It was Michael Gilchrist, or we would have been down 10 at half."

Kidd-Gilchrist (19 points, 9 rebounds) routinely cut through a physical LSU defense. He shot 5-of-8 on the day, and his constant driving buried Tigers forwards Johnny O'Bryant and Storm Warren in foul trouble.

"I had a mismatch down low, and I like being in the post. So that's what I did," he said.

Maybe it was watching the Tigers go on an 11-5 run to start the second half that sent the message. Maybe it was the realization that an upset was brewing, or the increasing frustration of a capacity partisan crowd. But with 16 minutes to play, the Wildcats bounced back. Led by a 9-0 spurt from Terrence Jones, Kentucky tore off a 17-5 run of play. The Wildcats' defense mangled LSU's Justin Hamilton in the low post, and their shots started falling.

"In the second half, we went in and said 'We need to take over and start getting the ball in the post, making open shots and always be ready to shoot,'" Davis said. "And that's what we did in the second half."

To their credit, the Tigers never went away. This same LSU team dropped a home game to the Wildcats by 24 points in January, but would not cave on the bigger stage. Anthony Hickey, who finished with 10 points, 4 assists and 5 steals, was a constant pain against Kentucky's larger defenders. Kentucky held the Tigers to a horrific 29 percent shooting, which made the game feel worse than it was. But the fact of the matter is, the final margin of nine was Kentucky's largest lead of the game.

"They did some good stuff," Calipari said of the Tigers. "They were ready to do some things. And I'll go back and watch the tape and see what adjustments, because people will be watching the tape saying 'This is how you need to play them.'"

If this was the first test of the postseason for the young Wildcats, they passed it. But in March, the next challenge is never far away.

"Good win," Calipari said. "Now we'll figure out who we're playing, get a good night's rest and get up at seven o'clock in the morning and start all over."