John Calipari says he doesn’t care about the Southeastern Conference Tournament. He says it has no bearing on Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament seeding (which he may be right about).
But he also said it’s a big deal to the fans, and he couldn’t be more right. In capturing 27th SEC Tournament titles over the years (the other SEC schools have a combined 25 tourney championships), the annual trek to the SEC Tournament has become one of the Big Blue Nation’s favorite times of the year.
In preparation for the Cats’ conference tournament opener on Friday, here are my six most memorable SEC Tournament moments:
Kentucky and Alabama battle back and forth
In 1979, the first year since 1953 that the SEC Tournament was played, perhaps one of the greatest games in SEC tourney history took place as Kentucky faced Alabama (coached by former UK athletic director C.M. Newton) in a quarterfinals matchup in Birmingham, Ala. Both teams entered the contest unranked, but that mattered not, as the two squads battled back and forth all game, making shot after shot, big play after big play.
In the end, Kentucky, with five players scoring in double figures, was too much for Bama to overcome as the Cats prevailed 101-100, even though the Tide’s Reginald King had a monster game with 38 points. Truman Claytor led Kentucky with 25 points, with Kyle Macy adding 22 and Dwight “The Blur” Anderson chipping in with 19.
Melvin Turpin ties scoring record
In a first round matchup in 1984, Kentucky’s Melvin Turpin, a member of UK’s Twin Towers, went unconscious, connecting on 18-of-22 shots on his way to tying Kentucky’s Cliff Hagan’s SEC Tournament record of 42 points (set in 1952), a high water scoring mark which still stands today. Kentucky easily won the contest 92-79.
Walker takes down Charles Barkley
Two days later, in the SEC finals, No. 3 Kentucky played one of the most tightly contested tourney games in history against the unranked Auburn Tigers, who were led by the outspoken “Round Mound of Rebound,” Charles Barkley. The Cats, guided by center Sam Bowie and Kenny “Sky” Walker, took the game straight to Barkley in an attempt to get the talented Tiger into foul trouble. The ploy worked, as Barkley picked up four fouls, rendering him less effective on the defensive end.
Tied at 49 with 14 seconds left, UK coach Joe B. Hall opted to get the ball to Walker for the final shot, but the play broke down as Auburn overplayed point guard Dicky Beal. Eventually working the ball to Walker with the clock quickly winding down, UK’s 6-foot-8 forward improvised a 14-foot shot, which hit the front of the rim, bounced high and fell through the net as the horn sounded. Barkley, who won the tourney MVP award, sat under the basket and sobbed as the Cats celebrated their first SEC Tournament championship since the renewal of the tourney in 1979.
In an unforgettable SEC Tournament championship matchup in 1995, No. 3 Kentucky faced the defending national champs, the No. 5 Arkansas Razorbacks. Coach Nolan Richardson’s squad, employing his patented “40 Minutes of Hell,” ran to a 35-16 lead inside the game’s first 11 minutes, but the Cats fought back to within six points at the half.
Kentucky, battling to get back into the game the entire second half, had an opportunity to win the game with 1.3 seconds remaining, but Rodrick Rhodes missed two free throws, sending the game into overtime. The extra period saw the Razorbacks score the first seven points, resulting in a nine-point UA lead with 1:39 left. Kentucky, though, went on a 13-2 tear, aided by Arkansas missing 4-of-6 free throws inside the final 1:11. The Cats capitalized, as backup point guard Anthony Epps nailed two free throws with 19.3 seconds left, giving UK a 94-93 lead they would not relinquish. UK won the most unlikely of games 95-93.
The very next year, in a prelude to the Cats’ championship run, UK ran up against a Mississippi State team bent on ending UK’s 27-game winning streak (Rick Pitino’s Cats only loss was to John Calipari’s UMass squad in the second game of the year).
With Pitino sitting star forward Antoine Walker for nearly the entire second half, MSU’s Dontae Jones took over game, scoring 28 points on 12-of-18 field goal shooting, leading State to a rousing 84-73 win over the nation’s No. 1 team. The loss turned out to be a good thing, as Kentucky marched through NCAA Tournament and won the national championship. Some still believe that loss was crucial to the Cats’ national title run.
Tornado shakes the Georgia Dome
Not all memories are great, and unfortunately, who could forget the tornado in 2008?
The Georgia Bulldogs came into the SEC Tournament with an overall 13-16 record and their coach, former WKU head man Dennis Felton, clinging to his job by the narrowest of threads. Playing in the Georgia Dome in Thursday’s first-round game, the Dawgs beat Ole Miss by a score of 97-95 in overtime.
The next night, the Dawgs were scheduled to take on Kentucky in the final quarterfinals matchup of the day. But fate intervened in the form of a tornado, which struck the Georgia Dome at 9:40 p.m. during the final minutes of the day’s third quarterfinal game, which had gone into overtime.
The Dome shook, as fans began scrambling for the exits, with the oversized lights hanging above the court swaying back and forth. It was as surreal a scene as one is likely to ever experience at a sporting event. SEC officials, who were on the scene, opted to delay the UK vs. Georgia game until the next day, and with the damage to the Dome, the games were to be played at tiny Alexander Memorial Coliseum on the campus of Georgia Tech. Because of the lack of seating, only cheerleaders, working media, player’s family members and the respective bands were allowed to attend.
In the early afternoon contest, by a score of 60-56, Georgia overcame in overtime a shorthanded Kentucky squad who was missing star forward Patrick Patterson due to a season-ending injury. Then, because of the delay of the Friday night UK vs. UGA game, the Dawgs were forced to play a hotly favored Mississippi State team only hours later in a Saturday night semifinal. With karma clearly favoring the Dawgs from Georgia, UGA came out on top 64-60, putting them in the finals on Sunday afternoon against Arkansas (coached by former Cat John Pelphrey), a team that finished the SEC season 9-7.
Of course, Georgia won the title tilt 66-57 (on the campus of its archrival, no less), completing an unlikely odyssey of three tourney wins in 30 hours, and four season-saving victories in four days.