John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats take on the Tennessee Volunteers for the SEC championship Sunday. Photo by BIll Greenblatt/UPI
The shots just kept falling for No. 13 Tennessee in the first half of their semifinal rout of Arkansas on Saturday. Kentucky freshmen Wenynen Gabriel and the Wildcats know the feeling.
Gabriel went 7 for 7 from 3-point range, leading Kentucky past Alabama to set up a championship game showdown on Sunday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis with the surging Volunteers.
Tennessee hit 11 of its first 12 shots and shot 76 percent overall in racing out to a commanding 48-29 halftime lead over Arkansas. Jordan Bone scored 17 of his 19 points in the first half and the Volunteers won their sixth straight game.
"In the first half, we played arguably the best basketball we’ve played all year," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
The Volunteers swept two regular-season meetings with Kentucky, most recently pulling out a 61-59 victory at Rupp Arena. The 59 points were a season low for the Wildcats.
Kentucky scored 57 points in the second half Saturday against Alabama. The Wildcats shot 64 percent from the floor, made 12 3-pointers and had 20 assists on 27 made field goals.
"We’re a team that, if we make 3s like that, that’s what we can do to people," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "We’re not a team that that’s what we live and die with. But Wenyen was unbelievable today.
"What you’re seeing right now is these kids have committed to each other. They’re working really hard. But I don’t know what tomorrow brings."
It brings a Volunteers squad that, to the surprise of most, appears to be peaking at the right time. Tennessee was picked to finish 13th in the 14-team SEC by the media in the preseason. Instead, the Volunteers shared the regular-season SEC title with Auburn and are headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.
In early January, the Volunteers erased an eight-point halftime deficit and pulled away from the Wildcats in Knoxville. Tennessee’s latest victory over Kentucky on Feb. 6 was a part of a four-game losing streak that had Big Blue Nation concerned.
Those concerns have been somewhat quelled with the Wildcats having won six of seven and reaching the SEC Tournament championship game once again.
"They’re a totally different team than they were then," Barnes said of Kentucky. "I’ve been watching them. They looked like — and John does such a great job. His teams always get better late in the year. It looks like they’ve really made a commitment to really play big, strong basketball inside. So I think tomorrow will be that kind of game."
Kentucky has won 11 straight games in the SEC Tournament. The Wildcats’ last lost in the tournament came against Florida in 2014.
"They’re growing up," Calipari said. "The best thing that happened to my team, not me personally, was the four losses in a row. Me, I was ready to jump off a bridge.
"But I knew and I told them, I’ve been through this before. They needed that. They needed to be told you’re not good enough, and you’re not going to do this by yourself. You’ve got to unpack your bags, and let’s get this together as a team and figure this stuff out."