By associated press
Sunday, March 14, 2010; D05
The No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats made a strong argument for the top overall spot in the NCAA tournament by handing 15th-ranked Tennessee a 74-45 loss Saturday in the Southeastern Conference tournament semifinals -- the Volunteers' most lopsided loss under Coach Bruce Pearl. But Calipari said he understands the importance of winning the conference tournament 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 Mississippi State 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 three-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 had its five-game winning streak snapped 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 push their lead to 29 late.
It was billed as a neutral court game, but the transformation of Bridgestone Arena into Rupp South was clear.
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."
-- MISSISSIPPI STATE 62, VANDERBILT 52: Barry Stewart scored 14 points and the Bulldogs advanced to their second consecutive SEC tournament championship game by knocking off the 20th-ranked Commodores.
Mississippi State (23-10) will face a Kentucky team returning to the title game for the first time since 2004.
Dee Bost, Phil Turner and Jarvis Varnado each added 11 for the Bulldogs, who won four straight games in the 2009 tournament for its first crown in seven seasons. Mississippi State received a first-round bye this time after sharing the SEC West Division crown with Mississippi, a team they beat twice this season.
Jermaine Beal scored 11 for Vanderbilt (24-8), which was hoping to reach the SEC tournament championship game for only the second time. The Commodores reached the final and won in 1951 and have lost two other times in the semifinals since the league split into divisions in 1992.
With a 33-29 lead just after halftime, Mississippi State went on an 11-0 run. Kodi Augustus blocked a shot by Vanderbilt's Jeffery Taylor, and Bost made a fast-break layup to give the Bulldogs a 44-29 lead with 17 minutes 13 seconds remaining.
Vanderbilt started to show signs of life when a three-point play by Taylor and a three-pointer by Brad Tinsley launched a 10-0 run. After a pair of free throws by Varnado, Tinsley sank another three-pointer to cut Mississippi State's lead to 51-48 with 5:37 left.
The Bulldogs clamped down on defense and answered with a 9-1 run to seal the win.