John Wall got the message—tournament games are hard.
Now, the star freshman will try to heed coach John Calipari’s advice and lift Kentucky to its first SEC title game in five years. Another slow start against Tennessee, however, could be costly.
Wall will try to help the second-ranked Wildcats avenge one of their two losses this season on Saturday when they face the 15th-ranked Volunteers in a semifinal matchup.
Wall scored 23 points—seven straight coming during a crucial stretch of the second half—as the Wildcats (30-2) overcome an 11-point deficit to beat Alabama 73-67 on Friday.
Using a roster featuring eight freshmen and sophomores, Kentucky cruised to its 44th SEC regular-season title with a 14-2 mark. So far, the conference tournament is proving to be a lot more difficult.
“I’m trying to convince this young team of 19-year-olds that either you want it more than they do or they want it more than you do,” Calipari said. “And whoever’s in that mode in this tournament and the next one is going to win. And it’s just hard.
“I mean you think you’ve cracked it, and they’ve understood, then they come out the next game, and you know well, ‘He pushed me, and I tried.’ He tried harder. You’ve got to try harder. All those kinds of things are what we’re dealing with right now.”
The Wildcats may have already secured a No. 1 seed at the NCAA tournament with its 12th 30-win season, the most by any team. However, another strong effort from Wall could make that a near certainty while moving them closer to a 26th conference tournament title and their first since 2004.
Wall leads Kentucky with 17.0 points and 6.4 assists per game, averaging 21.5 and 4.5 in two meetings with Tennessee (25-7), which lost to Mississippi State in last season’s conference championship.
The Wildcats struggled early in the last meeting with the then-No. 19 Volunteers on Feb. 27, falling behind by 19 in a 74-65 loss. That was two weeks after Kentucky took the previous matchup, 73-62 at home, behind 24 points from Wall.
The clubs haven’t met in tournament play since Kentucky won a quarterfinal matchup in 2005, en route to its last appearance in a conference championship game.
“Kentucky is the best,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “They are the best team here. They’re one of the best teams in the country and obviously an opportunity to play them and win a championship is something that you relish that opportunity, and we’ll prepare and we’ll get after them.”
Wayne Chism will try to help Tennessee to another upset of the Wildcats and a sixth consecutive win after beating Mississippi 76-65 on Friday to reach the semifinals for a third year in a row.
Chism had 16 points and 15 rebounds against the Rebels, and the Volunteers are 7-0 when the forward-center posts a double-double. The senior had 17 points and 11 boards in a 59-49 victory over LSU in the first round Thursday.
He hasn’t been nearly as effective against Kentucky, shooting 33.3 percent while averaging 10.0 points with 5.5 rebounds.
Some better shooting from Scotty Hopson, the team leader with 12.7 points per game, might be needed. The sophomore guard has made 2 of 19 shots to total eight points in the tournament.
His slump has come after he connected on 49.1 percent from the field to average 16.0 points in the previous four games, including a 15-point effort against Kentucky.