Mississippi State 57
Kentucky didn't even bother to cut down the nets.
"We won the championship here and it was special," Wildcats senior guard Keith Bogans said. "But we don't want to cut down two sets of nets. We just want to cut down one."
The Wildcats hope to return here for the Final Four and cut down the nets in the Louisiana Superdome after winning the NCAA title on April 7. Accordingly, Kentucky, 29-3 and riding a 23-game winning streak, chose not to bask in its 64-57 Southeastern Conference tournament championship victory over Mississippi State. The Wildcats, 16-0 during the regular season, went 3-0 in the SEC tournament to become the first team to go unbeaten in both for the first time since Kentucky did so in 1952. It was also Kentucky's second SEC tournament championship in three years and 24th overall.
"Kentucky's the team to beat," Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury said. "They're going to be back down here in New Orleans. We've just got to see who the other three teams will be."
Kentucky counterpart Tubby Smith wouldn't be surprised if Mississippi State (21-9) is one of them.
"They're very capable of being here and playing for the national championship," Smith said. "They've got that type of talent. Their physicality is going to take them far throughout the tournament . . . In a single-elimination tournament like this I've got to go with Mississippi State against almost anybody."
The last time the SEC tournament was played here, in 1996, Mississippi State beat Kentucky in the final and both advanced to the Final Four. Kentucky won the NCAA title under then-coach Rick Pitino. That team included eight players who went on to the NBA. This year's version of Big Blue may not be as talented, but boasts tremendous depth and synchronicity.
The leader is Bogans (DeMatha High), the SEC player of the year. He was named the tournament's MVP after scoring a game-high 22 points, 11 in each half.
"This was my senior season and it was going to be special regardless," Bogans said, "but the way we finished it out so far makes it extra special."
Teammates Chuck Hayes and Marquis Estill added 13 points and nine rebounds apiece and smothered Mississippi State big man Mario Austin, who was held to nine points on 3-for-14 shooting.
"I just tried to stay on top of him as much as I could and limit his touches," Estill said. "And when he did get the ball inside, bump with him a little bit and keep my hands straight up and make him shoot over them."
The Bulldogs' speedy guard, Derrick Zimmerman, also struggled with a 3-for-13 shooting performance.
"Who would have expected Mario to go 4 for 13 or me 3 for 13?" Zimmerman asked.
Unlike in its victories over Vanderbilt and Auburn, Kentucky was unable to pull away in the second half and bury the Bulldogs. For that matter, the Wildcats, who led 11-4, trailed by four in the first half and were down 31-30 at halftime.
Kentucky, which committed 12 first-half turnovers, came out strong after halftime and bolted to a nine-point lead, the last at 54-45 with 7 minutes 22 seconds left. But Mississippi State pulled to 56-55 on a three-pointer by Winsome Frazier with 2:40 left.
The Bulldogs had a chance to take the lead, but Austin missed two free throws with 1:51 left. Hayes, who blew a layup on Kentucky's previous possession, scored on a hop-step down the lane and then hit two free throws with 1:06 left to make it 60-55.
"They're a great basketball team and made plays down the stretch," said Timmy Bowers, who led State with 13 points.
Said Stansbury: "For them to run through this league, go 16-0 and win this tournament, is pretty remarkable in this day and time."