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“Blue Mist” Momentarily Covers Nashville, Cats Drop Opener on SEC Day Three

@CoachRyanKY 🦉

Four games were on the slate for “Quarterfinal Friday” in Nashville at the SEC Tournament. Today, the top-four seeds will all be in action looking to advance to the semi-finals tomorrow. The building would be full, the building would be loud, and my anticipation was overflowing as my favorite team (Kentucky) would finally get their post-season run underway in the first game of the evening session.

Game 7: Tennessee Volunteers vs Mississippi State Bulldogs, 1pm ET, ESPN

Top-seeded Tennessee got the action started against the Bulldogs on Friday. Tennessee has been basically “shoe’d” in to a number one seed by most media outlets when referring to the number one seed projections. I disagreed; I felt that Tennessee would need to at least advance to Saturday of the conference tournament to lock up a spot on the coveted one-seed line. Dalton Knecht, the SEC player of the year, models his game after Kevin Durant (UT Coach Rick Barnes might know a thing or two about him), and would need to be on his game as Mississippi State was playing with nothing to lose after Joe Lundari of ESPN firmly has them in the NCAA Tournament after last night’s victory over the Tigers from LSU.

The first of four was underway with the Bulldogs controlling the opening tip. Tolu Smith gave them the first lead of the game with a layup over Jonas Aidoo of Tennessee on their opening possession. Chris Jans would be very happy if they just ended the game now. Bulldogs lead 2-0 over the Volunteers. Little did I know what would be in store…

Josh Hubbard, whom has a knack for drawing fouls, baited Ziegler into an and-one opportunity that he was able to covert with 17:34 left to play to give the Dawgs the lead 7-2. The Vols could not get things going at all offensively, turnovers plagued the scoring column. Mississippi State started at 17:24 and a 8-0 run that saw the lead grow to 11, bringing the score to 15-4 heading into the under 12 media timeout at 11:52. “Our spacing is not very good”, Rick Barnes told Marty Smith. “We better get going, we will” he followed.

The scoring improved some for the Volunteers but Mississippi State was playing with a vengeance. The Bulldogs had an answer for everything that the veteran-Vol’s threw their way. Tennessee was able to narrow the gap to eight points entering the timeout with just as much time to play before halftime. “We needed to get off to a good start, our first shot defense has been pretty good,” Chris Jans attributed to the success of his squad from Starkville early. (Tennessee missing wide open looks didn’t hurt either.)

Jordan Matthews dished to Jimmy Bell for State to add two after a hard foul. He  missed the freebie but it widened the lead back to double digits for the Bulldogs 28-18 with 4:32 to play and Dalton Knecht going to have a seat by the Vols coaching staff. Mississippi State was absolutely dominating Tennessee physically, bringing panicky play forth from the Vols.

Halftime Score: Mississippi State 38 Tennessee 19

(Something of note. The Southeastern Conference Tournament began in 1979. Tennessee has competed in each tournament. The number of times they have come back to win when down by double digits at half? Zero.) I didn’t expect this score, but Tennessee always underperforms in March so maybe I should have.

“I haven’t seen that team all year long,” Rick Barnes said when returning to the court for the second half.

Tennessee started aggressively in the second half. Mississippi State continued to beat them on the offense boards to hold steadily in front at 40-26 with 16:05 remaining to a rising Vol Nation in Bridgestone Arena. Santiago Vescovi drew a controversial charging call on Cameron Matthews, giving the Vols control of the momentum, entering the first television timeout of the second half. Tennessee would need to score in a hurry before this one was too far out of reach.

With 11:37 on the clock and the score 55-33, the game was well in the Bulldogs control. If we all are being honest, it was in the blowout stage and the majority of the eyes that were once glued to this game had moved elsewhere. The Vols were absolutely outmatched, outclassed, and outmanuevered by the Mississippi State Bulldogs. The winner would be moving on to face the winner of the Auburn vs South Carolina matchup that would be played after the conclusion of this contest.

Knecht found himself on the bench for much of the remaining ten minutes. Coach Barnes probably was looking to avoid a potential injury for the upcoming NCAA Tournament as today just wasn’t going to be his day. There will be some concern in Knoxville heading into Selection Sunday. I’d be remised if I didn’t tell you I took slight enjoyment watching my favorite team’s fiercest in-conference rival bow out before championship weekend.

Final Score: Mississippi State 73 Tennessee 56

My Player of the Game: Cameron Matthews, Mississippi State (18 pts, 8 Rebs, 3 Asst)

Tennessee never held the lead once.

Game 7: Auburn Tigers vs South Carolina Gamecocks, 3:30 pm ET, ESPN

Auburn gave South Carolina a forty-piece heart breaking beating on Valentine’s Day. South Carolina has been on a tear as of late, so much so that their Head Coach Lamont Paris was named the Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year. It just means more. Bruce Pearl told his team in the locker room before the game, “win three here, then six more” referring to the ultimate competitor’s desire to build the hardware collection in Northern Alabama.

Johni Broome got the scoring started in the game but was bested by a Gamecocks triple from Ta’Lon Cooper. Collin Murray-Boyles, a future lottery pick in my eyes, added two of his own to make it 5-2 just over 90 ticks of the clock into this battle of two fairly evenly matched rosters. Jaylin Williams swished home a triple to give the Tigers a four point advantage with 14:54 in the first half.

Lamont Paris challenged his team to “hold their ground”. The ground he would be referencing bears roots of devastating defense. They were gifting the Tigers numerous second hand opportunities and this Auburn team is too good offensively to gift extra chances to score the basketball. An 11 point lead was opened on some professor-like play calling by Pearl leading to an 11-0 scoreless drought for the Gamecocks. 8:58 separated him from the locker room (and for his own comfort, hopefully a sweat towel) with the score 26-14, advantage Auburn.

Auburn’s KD Johnson landed a technical foul for some inappropriate comments directed at the officiating crew. It seemed to provide a spark for the close-knitted Tiger squad. Auburn began to run away with the lead at the half, Brrome scoring seconds before the buzzer sounded.

Halftime Score: Auburn Tigers 46 South Carolina 25

The second half of the game started with the SEC Network interviewing an elderly man with an Auburn sweatshirt that they captured reading a book during the first half of action. With his beloved Tigers piecing together a blowout, the SEC Network must have desperately been searching for intriguing content as they sent Marty Smith into the rafters with a camera man for the “close up”. So far today, there hasn’t been much excitement inside the confines of Bridgestone. I was hoping the upcoming Kentucky game would provide no change to the course and keep these announcers bored stiff.

Auburn ran back Valentine’s Day, winning this one big against a cooked squad of roosters.

Final Score: Auburn 86 South Carolina 55

My Player of the Game: Coach Bruce Pearl, Auburn Tigers, (Not a player, but his play calling was clinic-like for an X’s and O’s “nerd” such as myself.)

Game 8: Kentucky Wildcats vs Texas A&M Aggies, 7 pm ET, SEC Network

The first game of the nightcap featured the second-seeded Kentucky Wildcats and SEC Freshman of the year Reed Sheppard facing the seventh-seeded Texas A&M squad led by Coach Buzz WIlliams. Kentucky has been on a tear as of late. Big Blue Nation had taken over Nashville, providing a “Blue Mist” as the backdrop for the Wildcats’ “Drive for Nine”. I had been patiently waiting all week for this game, and shared the same excitement of tens-of-thousands of my closest friends. Texas A&M are currently on Lunardi’s Bubble so they would be playing to firm up their resume for selection Sunday.

“We are going to have our hands full”, Buzz Williams told media in the pregame.

Kentucky’s Ugonna Onyenso (“Ugo” for short) controlled the tip and DJ Wagner controlled the offense for the Cats to get things started. Antonio Reeves drew contact on a second-chance opportunity from an offensive rebound by Adou Thiero and the 88% free throw shooter on the season was 50% on this trip to put the Cats on top, albeit by one, early. Texas A&M started red hot, nailing two triples and adding an easy layup to rush out to an 8-1 lead due to blown assignments defensively. Coach John Calipari was forced to call a timeout after the made layup at 18:17 in an effort to settle down the Cats.

Kentucky’s “Delicious Duo” of Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham headed to the bench just under the 18-minute mark. Antonio Reeves was good from three to cut the lead to four as the clock stopped when A&M guard Wade Taylor IV bloodied his lip. That allowed Reed and Rob to check into the game at 17:17 in a move that BBN would hope changed the story early. Dillingham netted his first shot from NBA range to close the gap to four.

Zvonimir Ivisic, “Big Z”, entered the game shortly after. The lineup of Dillingham, Reeves, Sheppard, Thiero, and Ivisic is my personal favorite and that is who was on the floor as the first media timeout was due at 15:45. I feel that this lineup provides Kentucky with a spark on the defensive end in Thiero and that “Big Z” opens up the entire offense due to his ability to knock down three pointers. We know how well the other three have shot the basketball this season. That lineup was short lived as Tre Mitchell entered the lineup to replace Thiero out of the timeout.

Antonio Reeves put up his automatic soft floater to bring the Cats within three and the BBN to their feet. 14:19 remained in the game and A&M turned the ball over almost immediately after the fans rose to their feet. It won’t count on the stat sheet, but that steal belongs to “The Blue Mist”.  Kentucky took the lead after the 4-0 run to take the lead 16-15 while Buzz Williams called for stoppage at 13:07. The momentum was heavily in favor of the Wildcats.

Texas A&M weathered the storming Wildcats and scored four quick points out of the regroup. A controversial charge call on DJ Wagner with 11:38 remaining in the initial half brought out the “boo birds” of Bridgestone. That call matched with some out-of-control play by Rob Dillingham gave all of the momentum straight back to the Aggies.

Reed Sheppard, a Kentucky boy that grew up following the Wildcats to this event, netted two consecutive three point shots to bring the wildcats within two at 10:21. You can’t even give him an inch, or he will make you pay dearly. The BBN loved it as no one appeared to be sitting in their seats.

Taylor IV was playing like a man amongst men, gathering his 15th point of the half on a circus layup with 7:20 before half. Taylor, the preseason SEC Player of the Year, was looking like it early. Kentucky would look to shift their focus defensively to stopping his current production levels. Guard play in March, it’s like it matters more. That duece gave A&M the lead 33-27 as the TV timeout would hit just 18 seconds later.

The two teams were trading punches but Kentucky still could find no answer for Wade Taylor IV and also could not defend any shot from beyond the arc. A&M blew the doors open on a Tyrese Radford corner-three to bring the lead to double digits, 45-34 with 3:11 before BBN would begin to voice ardent displeasure in the concession lines. A very loud (and presumably very drunk from pregame libation on Broadway) let the officials (and Coach Calipari) know their feelings as they headed to the bowels of Bridgestone and their respective locker rooms. The Cats were stumbling themselves, down six to the seventh-seeded Aggies.

Halftime Score: Texas A&M 48 Kentucky 42

“When we control the pace it plays to our favor, when we get playing too fast we lose.” Buzz Williams analyzed his team’s first half performance with almost disbelief in his voice.

Kentucky opened up the second half by almost immediately cutting the lead to three points courtesy of Antonio Reeves. Ugo added the eighth block of the game a minute in a half in to prompt the famous roar of “Go Big Blue!” from a BBN that was looking for any reason to e”Rupp”t and get the weekend-long party they had hoped for started. Abrupt, could be the word to describe the above momentum. The Aggies settled back into a more patiently paced offense to widen the margin by seven after Manny Obasaki put Ivisic on a poster, 56-49, 17:18 to go before our third semi-finalist would be written in stone on the 2024 SEC Tournament Bracket. It. Just. Means. More. (To the BBN that spent a small fortune for their own weekend in the Music City in hopes of seeing the Wildcats end their five year SEC Tournament Championship drought.)

Reed Sheppard fell victim to a bad whistle on a blocked shot by Radford. Radford went 1-for-2 from the line and John Calipari began to let the stripes hear his displeasure. Rob caught a dish from Reed to score three of his own to bring his Wildcats back within four points. That basket by Dillingham made the score 61-57 with 13:17 to go before the Big Blue Nation would have a better grasp on their weekend plans. Non existent rim protection on two consecutive Aggies offensive possessions widened the gap to eight. However, their players were beginning to cramp…a fate often seen in tournaments due to their back-to-back nature not allowing for proper recovery. (You knew that but if I didn’t write it, a brilliant mind would feel the need to educate us on the obvious. Internet, ya know?)

Calipari went to a zone defense for four straight possessions to no avail after giving up four straight layups to the Aggies before that. I will address the elephant in the room, if John Calipari does not win this game…the seat will be heating up. That’s just the truth of the situation. He would need to make the Final Four for the BBN to begin to even “attempt” to smother the flames that an early exit in Nashville would ignite.

Texas A&M opened up the early looking of a blowout with 6:20 remaining, taking their largest lead of the game at 16 on a Radford made layup. Nashville is going to be HURTING this weekend if the Cats couldn’t complete a comeback after the early exit of the Vols in the matinée today.

Dillingham was trying to do his part, splashing home a triple to bring the Cats within ten with five to play. The next possession down he dished to Justin Edwards to bring the Cats back to within single digits. The BBN rose to their feet again. Was this going to be the push that Kentucky needed? Time was running out.

A&M owned Kentucky, completely owned them. They had an answer for everything that the Wildcats had. The Wildcats had zero answers on the defensive end to stop the A&M ball from going through the cylinder.

Kentucky extends the drought, Aggies win this one.

Final Score: Texas A&M 97 Kentucky 87

Player of the Game: Not Kentucky’s Defense

I had planned to blog the entire tournament. I think myself along with every writer in the Commonwealth will be looking for new weekend plans. I will be wallowing with the fellowship of the miserable on the post game radio programs. What a disappointing loss for John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats. If I was in charge of the seat, it’d be hot. Inexcusable.

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