- Sunday, March 16 2003 -
SEC Tournament Championship (at New Orleans, LA)
Kentucky - 64 (Head Coach: Orlando Smith) - [Ranked 2nd by AP]
Mississippi State - 57 (Head Coach: Rick Stansbury) - [Unranked]
Halftime Score: Mississippi State 31, Kentucky 30
|Prior Game|||||Next Game|
|Auburn 78 - 58|||||IUPUI 95 - 64|
Game Writeup - Written by Matt May; Courtesy of The Cats Pause, (All Rights Reserved)
Kentucky: 2003 SEC Tournament Champions
NEW ORLEANS - One title down, one to go.
Kentucky completed a perfect run through the Southeastern Conference with a tournament title, holding off a pesky Mississippi State off to claim its 24th conference tournament crown. The 64-57 victory was UK's 28th in the past 31 SEC Tournament games.
"Whether I thought we could do (19-0) or not?" UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "No. I wouldn't have thought we could go undefeated."
UK (29-3) not only went undefeated, it very nearly went unchallenged. But playing the defending champs in State, the Cats had their hands full from the outset. The Bulldogs (21-9) led for the last 11 minutes of the first half, as UK turned the ball over 12 times. The Cats' 31-30 deficit was the first time UK trailed at the break since the Vanderbilt game all the way back on January 14th.
But just like the other two conference tournament games, UK came out of the locker room and took over the game, this time in the form of an 18-6 run which gave the Cats a 48-39 lead it would never relinquish.
Still, State wouldn't go away, cutting the lead to one at 56-55 with 2:42 left. Less than a minute later, State center Mario Austin was fouled by UK's Chuck Hayes and stepped to the line for two shots.
Austin, who was held to nine points and six rebounds, missed both attempts and UK rebounded the ball and headed up court. UK broke down the State 2-3 zone on the ensuing possession and Marquis Estill penetrated the lane for a short leaner to give the Cats a 58-55 lead with 1:24 remaining. MSU's Derrick Zimmerman then missed a drive to the basket and Hayes added two free throws to seal the victory.
"We had a chance to beat the best team in the country with a minute to go," State Coach Rick Stansbury said. "It's disappointing we weren't able to win this.
"But (UK) went 16-0 and to run through this tournament the way they did, that's really saying something in this day in age. My hats off to them."
Maybe most importantly for UK was how it won. The Cats did not play their best game, actually far from it, but still pulled out a victory over a team several players said was the second best in the SEC. UK overcame 19 turnovers and poor three-point shooting, plus being outscored in the paint and the bench to win.
Just as it has been the entire second half of the season, the Cats relied on sticky defense, holding State to 36,1 percent from the field, including just 10-of-31 in the second half. Austin and Zimmerman combined to hit just 6-of-27 shots to go along with Zimmerman's seven turnovers. Smith said the defense on Austin was critical to UK's chances of taking the title.
"Quis (Estill) did an excellent job," Smith said. "He's been doing it all year. We put a lot of pressure on Mario. We wanted to contain him and Quis is a tough target to shoot over. That's why we limited (Austin) inside."
Estill, who finished with 13 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals, said he was helped by the officials allowing the teams to bang in the paint.
"This was the most physical game of the year," Estill said. "Mario Austin is a nice player, but the refs let us play. I enjoyed that."
Now, UK is enjoying its ninth SEC Tournament title in the last 12 seasons.
Marquis Estill is surrounded by the Mississippi State defense
Keith Bogans and Marquis Estill celebrate the victory with the SEC Tournament trophy