The game is set.
For the second time in three years, top-seeded Kentucky will face off against third-seeded Arkansas at 1 p.m. Sunday inside Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena with the Southeastern Conference tournament title on the line.
The Wildcats (28-5), ranked eighth in the latest Associated Press poll, advanced to the title game following a 79-74 win over a feisty Alabama team on Saturday afternoon.
Kentucky trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half before the one-two punch of freshmen guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk took control of the game.
Fox scored a game-high 28 points, including 14 of the Wildcats’ final 19 to help Kentucky pull away from the fifth-seeded Crimson Tide.
Monk, the SEC Freshman of the Year, added 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting after scoring eight total points in Kentucky’s previous two games.
“I’m just getting confident,” said Fox, who is averaging 20 points per game over his past four contests.
“One of my friends told [Kentucky coach John Calipari] something, I won’t repeat it. … After that, I’ve just been shooting the ball better.”
Since Kentucky’s last loss — an 88-66 defeat at Florida on Feb. 4 — the Wildcats have rattled off 10 wins in a row, six of which have been decided by fewer than 10 points.
Despite the wins and the Wildcats’ momentum, Calipari said he doesn’t want his team to get too cocky with the NCAA Tournament looming this week.
“We have a great will to win,” said Calipari, whose Wildcats have won two consecutive conference tournament titles and will be in the conference championship game for the fourth year in a row.
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“What you don’t want as a coach is for players to think you cannot be prepared to play a game and then you can turn it on and you’ll be OK … because you’re going to play somebody that comes in and smacks you and you get down and they’re too good to come back on.”
That could be the case on Sunday against Arkansas (25-8), which defeated seventh-seeded Vanderbilt 76-62 in the second semifinal game and has won eight of its past nine overall.
The Razorbacks, who opened tournament play on Friday night with a 73-72 quarterfinal win over Ole Miss that went down to the wire, started the second half against Vanderbilt on a 21-4 run on Saturday to pull away and advance to the SEC tournament championship game for the second time in three years.
“It’s starting to take place,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “I think that’s a tribute to our guys in trusting one another and working hard every day.”
Guard Jaylen Barford scored a game-high 18 points and senior Dusty Hannahs added 16 for Arkansas, which shot 47.8 percent from the field against a tired Vanderbilt team playing its third game in as many days.
The Commodores opened the tournament with a 66-41 win over Texas A&M on Thursday before pulling off a 72-62 overtime upset of second-seeded Florida on Friday.
Now, Arkansas shifts its attention to Kentucky, which has won the past four meetings between the teams by an average of 18 points, including the 2015 conference tournament final by a score of 78-63.
“They’re a good team,” Hannahs said, “but so are we. We’re playing really good basketball right now. We’re ready to face anyone in the country.”