Never before has there been so much at stake in the SEC Tournament as there will be for this year’s Kentucky Wildcats. What started as a team with a pre-season top 10 ranking and potential Final Four upside, has now finished as a team of desperation. The team and all of Big Blue Nation are clinging to one final chance at making the NCAA Tournament, hoping that this team can do what it has failed to do during the entire regular season: win 4 consecutive games.
As we all spend the next few days analyzing the SEC Tournament bracket and talking ourselves into how we can see this team winning the whole thing, let’s take a stroll down memory lane at the 10 best SEC Tournament games of the John Calipari era. We all need a little dose of optimism and to remember the glorious times of tournaments past.
#10: March 15, 2015: 34-0
Kentucky finished off its perfect regular season with a dominating performance in the 2015 SEC championship game. Cruising to a 78-63 victory over Arkansas. It was their 34th straight victory, and after the game the players decided to send the student managers out to cut down the nets because they were waiting to cut down the ones at the Final Four (*insert crying emoji*). Check out the highlights and tell me how in the world this team ever lost a game:
#9: March 12, 2017: The Dominique Hawkins Game
There were storylines all over the place in this one. Malik Monk doing a throat slash at the end of the game because he said the Arkansas players were taunting him during warmups. The Kentucky kid, Dominque Hawkins, having the game of his career and making the All-Tournament Team (there was not a dry eye in the house when that announcement was made). Propelled by a 13-0 run to close the 1st half, Kentucky beat Monk’s home state Razorbacks 79-65 on their way to yet another SEC title.
Hawkins finished the game with 14 points and a standing ovation upon making the All-Tournament Team.
#8: March 10, 2012: Kentucky pounds Florida on the glass in semi-finals
As amazing as that 2012 team was, they may have been the best UK team to NOT win the conference tournament. But on this particular day, Anthony Davis showed why he was one of the best players in college basketball, finishing with 15 points and 12 rebounds. The biggest story of the day however, was how Kentucky crushed Florida on the glass, outrebounding the Gators 39-25 and snatching a whopping 16 offensive rebounds. Florida actually led 56-51 with 10:43 to go, but UK then immediately went on a 14-0 run to take a 65-56 lead. Check out the highlights of one of the great forgotten SEC Tournament games:
#7: March 14, 2014: The Tweak
All week leading up to Kentucky’s 2014 opening round game of the SEC Tournament, all we heard about was this mysterious “tweak” that John Calipari said he implemented that completely changed the offense. Of course, he said casual fans wouldn’t even notice, but the real Basketball Benny’s might figure it out. The tweak worked. James Young had 21 points, Julius Randle had 17 points and 16 rebounds, and Willie Cauley-Stein notched 6 blocked shots in a 85-67 victory over LSU (who had beat the Cats earlier in the year). Check out the highlights and see if you can see the tweak:
(*spoiler: Calipari said later that year the tweak was that he told Andrew Harrison to pass the ball more)
#6: March 13, 2011: It’s Miller Time
The Mason County native had a tournament to remember at the Georgia Dome in 2011.
Kentucky native Darius Miller scored 15 points was named Tournament MVP as the Cats won back-to-back SEC Tournament crowns for the first time since the 2003-2004 seasons, defeating Florida 70-54. Doron Lamb also returned after giving fans quite a scare as he suffered what appeared to be a severe ankle injury in the semi-final game the day before. Coach Cal quipped, “I know it looked like he got shot by a sniper when he went down, but it was a light sprain.” Oh how I long for the days when we got actual injury updates. But nonetheless, this game set the tone for the tremendous tournament run Brandon Knight and Company would have in the next few weeks, taking Kentucky to its first Final Four in over a decade.
#5: March 10, 2018: Wenyen Gabriel hits SEVEN 3-pointer’s
I don’t know that anyone ever saw this coming. Wenyen Gabriel shot 36% from the 3-point line in his 2 seasons at Kentucky. Certainly not bad, but nothing ever indicated he could go off for a performance like this. And it wasn’t just that he made 7, he only ATTEMPTED 7. That’s a percentage of 100% for you mathematics majors. And 5 of them came in the second half. As each passing shot went in, the fans in St. Louis got louder and louder. For a guy who only averaged 6 points per game, his 23 points may be the most memorable individual performance of any SEC Tournament game in the Calipari era:
#4: March 13, 2010: Kentucky gets revenge on Tennessee
The 2010 Cats only lost 2 games during the regular season, 1 of which took place in Knoxville at the hands of Bruce Pearl and Tennessee. I don’t recall there ever being more buzz about a semifinal game than this one. It was billed as the “Pros” vs. the “Cons”. Ticket prices were over $1000 for the nosebleeds, and UK simply dominated. In fact, we never trailed for the entire game, and handed Bruce Pearl his worst loss while coach at UT in a 74-45 shellacking to avenge their earlier loss. The UK fans in attendance, including Ashley Judd, went bonkers. After the game, Tennessee point guard Bobby Maze said that Kentucky fans travel like the “Million Man March.”
With the game out of reach, Bruce Pearl began pondering what he was going to cook on the grill for his recruits coming over later that night.
#3: March 11, 2018: SGA Takes Over
In a season full of struggles, Kentucky came into the 2018 SEC Tournament as a 4 seed. Which until 2021 was the lowest a Calipari Kentucky team had been seeded in the tournament. So maybe there is hope after all? Of course, the 2018 team had Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who absolutely could not be stopped. SGA went for 29 points and took Tennessee guard off the bounce time and time again in leading Kentucky to its 31st (and most recent) championship.
After starting the season as the back-up Point Guard, Shai earned himself an MVP trophy at the 2018 SEC Tourney.
#2: March 13, 2016: Overtime Classic
Kentucky’s 82-77 overtime victory over Texas A&M in the 2016 championship game, is one of my favorite games I’ve ever watched. Just great basketball from both teams. Tyler Ulis was an absolute machine and played all 45 minutes, while scoring a career-high 30 points. I think most Kentucky fans will remember the huge 3-pointer by Derek Willis with 1 minute left in OT that put Kentucky ahead to stay. Seriously, check out these highlights. This was such an amazing game:
#1: March 14, 2010: Cousins buzzer beater
Was there any doubt about what would be number one on the list? Kentucky and Mississippi State produced some epic games early in Coach Cal’s tenure. We will always remember the Demarcus Cousins “call me” game in Starkville, but this game in the 2010 championship will forever be my personal favorite moment of any SEC Tournament. The Cats appeared on the verge of defeat, down 5 with 2:28 to go in the game. But as this team always did, they clawed back. Down 3 with 4.9 seconds left, MSU Coach Rick Stansberry decided to play the odds and foul Eric Bledsoe so that Kentucky couldn’t hit a 3 to tie. Rather than me describe what followed, I think it’s best we just watch:
It was Kentucky’s first SEC Tournament title since 2004 and the first title game since 1952 that was decided by one point, as the Cats won in OT 75-74. After the game John Wall said he thought the game was over when Cousins hit the tying basket, hence the crazy celebration that ensued. Man that team was fun.
I hope these memories brought you some joy, it certainly did for me. And who knows, maybe these 2021 Cats can replicate some of the previous Calipari SEC magic. Maybe Dontaie Allen will channel his inner Darius Miller and Dominique Hawkins and become the in-state hero. Maybe Brandon Boston will go crazy from the 3-point line like Wenyen Gabriel. Maybe Olivier Sarr will hit a big shot at the buzzer (he is certainly due for one). There is always hope. And while many may say, “it’s the hope that kills you”, I like to believe in what Ted Lasso said, which is “it’s the lack of hope that comes and gets ya.”
Do you believe in miracles?