Even with his Kentucky Wildcats holding a comfortable lead for the entire second half of the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game, John Calipari didn’t let up on his players.
As the Wildcats continued to make shot after shot against Arkansas, free throw after free throw, Calipari’s demeanor didn’t change.
It was business as usual.
Top-seeded Kentucky, playing in front of a mostly blue crowd of 19,953 that resembled a home game at Rupp Arena more than a conference tournament game inside Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, throttled No. 3 seed Arkansas 82-65 on Sunday to clinch its third consecutive SEC Tournament championship, its fifth under Calipari and its 30th overall.
Kentucky (28-5) will enter the NCAA Tournament on an 11-game win streak.
“We have a winning culture and that’s kind of what we’re supposed to do,” said Derek Willis, one of three seniors on Kentucky’s roster who has been part of the last three SEC Tournament-winning teams. “We came in with a mindset of just wanting to get experience for the [NCAA] tournament. We figured while we were here, we might as well win it all.”
After an opening 10 minutes that saw six lead changes, four ties and sloppy possessions by both sides, Kentucky closed out the first half by making 10 of 15 shots — including three unanswered three-pointers heading into intermission — to take a 42-30. The Wildcats made four of their first six shots to open the second half to extend their lead to 16 points and comfortably held a double-digit lead until Arkansas’ Jaylen Barford swished a three-pointer with 1:38 left to play to cap a 15-5 rally for Arkansas (25-9) that ultimately came up short.
“We needed that kind of game,” Calipari said.
Freshman De’Aaron Fox, who was named the tournament’s MVP after averaging 22 points on a blistering 61.8-percent shooting efficiency in Kentucky’s three tournament games, scored 18 points in the win. SEC Freshman of the Year Malik Monk and fellow freshman Bam Adebayo added 17 points apiece for Kentucky, which shot 48.2 from the floor and made all six of its free throws down the stretch to ice the game. Senior Dominique Hawkins chipped in a career-high 14 points.
Arkansas senior forward Moses Kingsley was ejected with 1:02 left to play after being charged with a Flagrant 2 foul. Daryl Macon scored a team-high 18 points off the bench for the Razorbacks, who were held to 35.4-percent shooting before their late flurry in the final five minutes.
“We started off [the regular season] slow, and in the tournament we didn’t have that problem,” Fox said. “[We] feel like it’s going to be hard to beat us when we play hard for 40 minutes.”