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SEC Notebook

February 26, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Southeastern Conference Notebook

by Rainer Sabin

It didn’t seem possible that one team would emerge as the king of the hill in the Southeastern Conference this season. But the No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats (22-3, 12-0 SEC) sit atop the summit of the SEC with no challengers likely to dethrone them anytime soon. No. 19 Mississippi State (17-6, 7-5 SEC) was the latest team to try to knock them from their pedestal.

But like the rest of their SEC brethren, the Bulldogs capitulated. Kentucky’s 70-62 victory over Mississippi State Sunday only moved the Wildcats that much closer to a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where any team will be hard-pressed to beat them. Mixing a suffocating 2-3 zone with man-to-man defense, Kentucky thwarted the Bulldogs from the outset.

Behind Keith Bogans, who scored 18 points, and Cliff Hawkins, who added 14 points, the Wildcats built a 32-13 lead with 6:26 left in the opening half. While the Bulldogs were able to cut the lead to 10, 30-28, before halftime, Kentucky was never threatened.

In the second period, the Wildcats rebuilt its insurmountable advantage to 17, 56-39, when forward Marquis Estill grabbed a rebound and found a streaking Bogans for a lay-up. A desperate comeback attempt by Mississippi State cut its deficit to five, 60-55. But Kentucky answered the Bulldogs’ 16-4 run to secure its 16th consecutive victory. Kentucky coach Tubby Smith commented on the winning streak after the victory over the Bulldogs. “We’ve just been trying to concentrate on what we need to work on for that opponent,” Smith said. “Keep the same routine with drills in practice. And keep the players humble. Make sure they know that every day in practice they have to come out and earn it.”

They have. The Wildcats, which limited the Bulldogs to 42 percent, have emerged as the best defensive team in the conference, and perhaps, the nation. Kentucky leads the league in scoring defense, field goal percentage defense, rebounding defense, rebounding margin, and turnover margin. If that wasn’t enough to substantiate Kentucky’s case for a No.1 seed, the Wildcats are one of two teams-the other being No. 1 Arizona-that have just one loss on the road. Unless the Wildcats have a late-season collapse, which is not likely, expect Kentucky to have a festive Selection Sunday.

Rising Alabama, Falling Tennessee

Two weeks ago, Alabama [15-8, 5-7 SEC] was lost and unable to be found. Fourteen days later, the Crimson Tide is back on track and on course for an NCAA bid. That is because Alabama has won two of its last three games-the last of which was a victory on the road. Despite a 74-69 loss to Georgia last Wednesday, Alabama rebounded Saturday with an impressive 76-71 victory over Tennessee (15-8, 7-5 SEC) in Knoxville last Saturday. Behind Erwin Dudley’s 18 points and Mo Williams’ 17 points, the Tide was able to withstand a late charge by the streaky Volunteers, who have lost two consecutive games.

Down by as many as 18 points, Tennessee made two separate runs to cut the lead to as little as five in the final minutes. C.J. Watson’s three-pointer with 13.8 seconds remaining in regulation pulled the Volunteers within two, 73-71. But Alabama was able to close out the game and earn its first victory away from home in seven attempts this season. “I was very disappointed,” Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson said. “We need to take better care of our home-court advantage than this. Alabama ran their offense without resistance from us in the first half by going after the loose balls and the rebounds. They played like a team that really wanted to win very badly. Give Alabama a lot of credit.”

Auburn Back on Track, Ole Miss Falters Again

In the coming weeks, Auburn (18-7, 7-5 SEC) wants to be considered worthy of a bid to the NCAA Tournament by the NCAA Selection Committee. A win over Ole Miss (12-11, 3-9 SEC) on the road should help. On Saturday, the Tigers vanquished the Rebels 80-75 in Oxford, as guard Marquis Daniels scored 29 points on 12 of 14 shooting. Despite having trailed throughout the game, Ole Miss battled to tie the score at 75 when Aaron Harper buried his fifth three-pointer with 1:25 left.

However, forward Marco Killingsworth responded with a dunk off an assist from Daniels that secured the victory. For the game, Auburn shot 65 percent from the field against a team that has fallen by the wayside in recent weeks. The Rebels have lost seven consecutive games and their schedule will not get any easier in the future. Ole Miss faces Georgia and Alabama this week, as it hopes to keep its dream of postseason play alive.

Florida Sneaks by Vanderbilt

Memorial Gym in Nashville has become a scary destination for ranked teams in recent years. Vanderbilt’s home arena, which features an elevated court, almost brought another visitor to its knees Saturday. However, Florida (22-4, 10-2 SEC) was able to outlast the Commodores 77-74 in overtime. Guard Anthony Roberson, who had 18 points, scored on a driving layup that tied the game at 66 at the end of regulation. Despite the late heroics, Florida struggled in the overtime.

The Gators were never able to pull away from the Commodores (10-13, 3-9 SEC) in the extra session. Trailing 74-73, freshman guard Matt Walsh scored on a lay-up and two free throws that gave Florida a 77-74 advantage with 4.7 seconds left. Nevertheless, Vanderbilt still had an opportunity to tie the game. Matt Przybyszewski’s three-point attempt at the buzzer was off the mark and Florida escaped with the win. Matt Frieje’s 24 points led Vanderbilt, which has lost five consecutive games and has fallen to the bottom of the SEC East standings-a place that has become all to familiar for the Commodores. “We’re very disappointed with the way this season has gone,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said Monday in a news conference provided by the SEC. “We’re under .500 and our league record is bad. We felt that we were better than this. But our players continue to fight hard, and that’s all that we can ask of them.”

Georgia Bites Gamecocks

For the first time in five games, South Carolina (11-12, 4-8 SEC) found itself on the losing end. In Athens, (Georgia 16-7, 8-4 SEC) outlasted the Gamecocks 79-66 on Saturday. The Bulldogs, who have won three consecutive games including a 74-69 victory over Alabama Wednesday night, improved to 11-0 at home this season. Behind Ezra Williams’ 16 points and Jarvis Hayes’ 26 points, Georgia led for the entire second half and the last 4:46 of the first.

The victory over the Gamecocks proved important for the Bulldogs, who are looking to solidify their status as a tournament team come March. Meanwhile, the loss proved devastating for South Carolina, who is just looking to surpass the .500 mark by the end of the season and qualify for the NIT.

Arkansas Hits Another Low

Arkansas (7-16, 2-10 SEC) continued its struggles on Saturday, when it lost its fifth consecutive game to LSU (15-9, 4-8 SEC) 76-55 in Baton Rouge Saturday. The Razorbacks, who have not won a game on the road all season, continued to play poorly away from home. Arkansas fell behind immediately in a game it never had a chance of winning. The Tigers pounced on the Razorbacks in the opening minutes, as LSU jumped out to a 20-2 lead with 13:15 remaining in the first period. By halftime, the Razorbacks trailed 49-19 against a team they had beat 73-65 Jan.22. As a result, the second period transformed into a mere formality and Arkansas was given another embarrassing defeat.

The Hogs shot just 32 percent for the game and the Razorbacks’ five seniors scored a combined 17 points, prompting Arkansas coach Stan Heath to criticize the play of his upperclassmen. Meanwhile, LSU received more than enough production from its seniors. Ronald Dupree scored 25 points and Torris Bright added 10 in the victory. The Tigers hope this victory will jumpstart a run to the Big Dance, where the Tigers haven’t been since the 1999-2000 season.


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