No. 4 Kentucky 79, LSU 78, OT
ATLANTA (AP)—Chuck Hayes threw his arms in the air and let out a scream. Tubby Smith pumped his fist furiously as he ran along the sideline. Kentucky usually takes the Southeastern Conference tournament in stride, but the Wildcats couldn’t contain themselves.
This one was worth celebrating.
Hayes spun into the lane to hit the winning shot with 7.9 seconds left in overtime Saturday, giving the No. 4 Wildcats a 79-78 victory over LSU and a chance to play for another SEC tournament championship.
“Certainly, it gives us the belief that we can win close games,” said Smith, the Wildcats’ coach.
Brandon Bass hit a miraculous shot for the Tigers as the buzzer sounded in regulation, forcing overtime with the score tied at 70. LSU built a five-point lead in the extra period, but it wasn’t enough to hold off the Wildcats and the weight of history.
Kentucky (25-4) will be going for its third straight SEC tournament title, its 11th in 14 years and 26th overall. LSU (20-9) has won it only once, way back in 1980.
After its last two championships, the Wildcats didn’t even bother cutting down the nets. They may call for the scissors if they beat Florida on Sunday— especially with the way they survived the semifinals.
Patrick Sparks hit a crucial 3-pointer from the corner to spark the Kentucky comeback, which was helped along when LSU’s Glen Davis missed a pair of free throws with 39 seconds left.
Kelenna Azubuike, who led the Wildcats with 19 points, drew a foul and made the first of two free throws to pull Kentucky to 78-77. When the second attempt clanked off the rim, Hayes swooped in to grab the offensive rebound.
Kentucky called timeout and set up a play for its senior leader, even though he had made only 2 of 9 shots. The Wildcats worked the ball inside to Hayes, who spun around the 300-pound Davis and banked in the shot with his left hand.
“The whole game I had been pausing to see what the defense was going to do,” Hayes said. “But that time, I just told myself to make a quick move, get it up on the rim and give it a chance to go in.”
Sparks set a crucial pick that gave Hayes room to operate around the massive Davis.
“I should have felt the screen,” the LSU freshman said. “I should have felt the pick and gotten over there.”
The Tigers still had time to pull off the win, but Tack Minor drove wildly into the lane and lost the ball while trying to put up the shot. Appropriately, Hayes grabbed it as the horn sounded to send the Wildcats to the title game against Florida.
“Chuck is the key and the glue,” Smith said.
Again Sunday, the Wildcats will have history on their side. The Gators have never won the SEC tournament, losing four times in the final—including 89-73 to Kentucky last year.
Then again, Florida did beat Kentucky in the regular-season finale last weekend, pulling off a 53-52 upset in Gainesville.
Bass gave LSU a chance to knock off the Wildcats. After Kentucky missed three of four free throws in the final minute of regulation, the SEC player of the year took off down the court, pulled up just inside the 3-point line and lofted a jumper over Hayes’ outstretched arm.
The ball hit the back of the rim, then the backboard, then the rim two more times before dropping through as the buzzer sounded. Bass was mobbed by his teammates and actually ripped off his jersey to celebrate.
Of course, he had to put it back on for overtime.
“I thought the game was over,” Bass said. “I really thought we were down one. It was a big shot, but it would have been bigger if we had won the game.”
LSU gave a much better effort than its 31-point loss at Kentucky in January, even though this one had the feel of another road game. Nearly everyone in the Georgia Dome crowd of 24,214 was wearing blue.
“This Kentucky following is amazing,” said coach John Brady of the Tigers, who are still assured of an NCAA bid. “For our team to come in here and play well in this environment has to help our team out, even in losing.”
Antonio Hudson added, “The attitude we played with there was totally different from where it is now. When we got behind in Rupp Arena, we kind of gave up. Tonight, we continued fighting and never gave up.
In overtime, LSU got a couple of fast-break layups for a 76-71 lead with 2 1/2 minutes left. That sent the Wildcats into desperation mode, and their sense of urgency paid off on the next possession.
Kentucky missed three shots underneath but fought for the offensive rebound each time. Finally, Bass fouled Hayes, who made both free throws.
Davis hit a couple of foul shots to restore the five-point cushion, but Sparks made his fifth 3-pointer of the game from deep in the corner. He finished with 17 points.
“He’s a money player,” Smith said. “He’s a kid who likes to take the big shot.”
Hudson made four 3s and led LSU with 21 points. Bass had 16 points and 13 rebounds.
Kentucky freshman Joe Crawford, who briefly quit the team in January because he was upset about a lack of playing time, contributed a career-high 14 points. Most of them came early in the second half when the Wildcats’ bench kept them in the game.