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SEC Quarterfinals Recap

March 13, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Southeastern Conference Quarterfinals Recap

Recap by Matt Jones

Kentucky 69 Georgia 60
Day 2 of the SEC Tournament began with more of a bang than yesterday’s dreary action as Kentucky avenged their season sweep at the hands of Georgia by taking down the Bulldogs in quarterfinal play. The Wildcats were led by Cliff Hawkins who went for 32 points, including a key three pointer during a late eight point rally that sealed the game. For much of the game, Georgia continued their physical domination of the Wildcats, but poor execution, specifically on the foul line, doomed them at the end.

The Cats were helped throughout the game by their tremendous crowd support. Even though the game was in Atlanta and many expected a strong home-state showing by Georgia, Kentucky fans nevertheless outnumbered the Georgia faithful 5-1. Throughout the game, the Big Blue Nation kept the decibel levels inside the Georgia Dome at high levels, and often seemed to give the Wildcats a lift during difficult junctures. It is a statement not only about the level of rabid fan support that Kentucky has, but also the level of indifference to basketball that many of the other program’s fans in the conference have that Kentucky could outdraw to such a great degree, a school in its home state. After the game, Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes said of the fans, “They are great and expect a lot. After losing to Georgia twice, I knew they wanted this one and I didn’t want to face them if we didn’t come through.”

Hayes did not have to worry about that as Kentucky showed once again why any shot at the conference tournament title still does, and may always, run through the Big Blue. In the past few weeks, Tubby Smith has his Kentucky Wildcats playing offense with the same degree of intensity and efficiency with which they have been able to exude all season on defense. Kentucky has become the sexy pick for the Final 4 by many of the national experts, as they combine all of the elements necessary for a championship run. They are led by a solid group of seniors, play suffocating defense and have a coach who has shown an ability to make the right decisions during crunch time. This game was especially big for Kentucky as they were able to overcome a team that not only had their number in previous encounters, but also plays exactly the type of tough, physical basketball that has given the Wildcats fits.

Georgia on the other hand had their tournament run ended and now must simply sit and wait and hope that the tournament committee will give them an at-large berth into the big dance. No matter the result on Selection Sunday, the job that Coach Dennis Felton has done with this team cannot be understated. He has taken a program in complete disarray and quickly brought it to a level where they could give consistent fits to the top college basketball program of all time. Here’s hoping he is rewarded with a ticket to March Madness.

South Carolina 85 LSU 64
In what many believed could be the game of the quarterfinals, South Carolina simply outlasted on undermanned LSU team to pull out a victory 85-64 and likely insure themselves a ticket to the Big Dance. South Carolina fell behind early by as many as fifteen points, only to overcome the deficit by halftime and then put the Tigers away in the second half. LSU showed the effects of the loss of Jamie Lloreda as their group of talented freshman (and All Time Hall of Fame All-Name Team member Xavier Whipple) simply could not overcome their lack of experience and succumbed to Dave Odom’s team late. LSU is now a very difficult team to figure for the NCAA Tournament, as they had a wonderful season for the majority of the year, but are now without their best player and have not shown the early spark that put them in the national rankings. My guess is that the Tigers will miss out when the final bids are handed out, but John Brady’s young team will be tough in the years to come.

The big news of the second game of Day 2 was not however to be found on the court, but rather occurred on the sidelines when I discussed the origin of one of college basketball’s greatest phrases with its resident poet Bill Rafferty. Since I was a wee little chap, I have always found Rafferty to be among the most entertaining of all sports announcers. When he screams phrases such as “Waltah to the Altah”, you know that you are hearing the best in sports journalism. But my all-time favorite Rafferty language bouquet was his famous proclamation to “Send it in Jerome!” when Jerome Lane broke a backboard while playing for Pittsburgh. Because of my role as an investigative journalist, I felt it was my duty to find out the “story behind the story” on the phrase.

I approached Rafferty in a hallway, introduced myself and reminded him that he had met many years before in the Nashville airport and had given me a hat. Much to my dismay he seemed to have forgotten that encounter (probably just a short-term memory slip), but still was very gracious in our conversation. I explained that I enjoyed his work and asked him about his most famous phrase. As with Barry Booker yesterday, I will re-create our conversation.

Me: So what was going through your mind when you said, “Send it in Jerome!”

Bill: Actually I wasn’t thinking anything. It was just my initial reaction to the situation.

Me: Now I know you are being modest. Something that profound cannot just come from visceral expression.

Bill: Don’t you have anything better to do?

Actually it was not quite like that, but that is a close approximation. Rafferty could not have been nicer and explained that he never would have believed that his phrase would have such a lasting effect. I thought about that and realized that I have not uttered such a phrase yet, one that will follow me throughout my career and become my sportswriting legacy. That is a shame, so I plan on ending this afternoon session with just such a phrase. Throughout my lifetime, I hope people will remember that I uttered…. “[Dave] Odom is O-MAZING!” Yeah I think that should do it.

Vanderbilt 74 Mississippi State 70
Well it took a while, but this is what an SEC Tournament game is supposed to be. In one of the more thrilling games that I have seen in person, the Vanderbilt Commodores were able to upset Mississippi State in overtime, 74-70. Vanderbilt (who is playing the best basketball of any team in the tournament) showed a toughness that some of their critics (such as this humble reporter) had suggested they lacked. Coach Kevin Stallings was so impressed with his team’s effort that he could barely contain himself, complaining only about his star Matt Frieje’s lack of rebounding effort. With the win, Vanderbilt erased any doubts about whether they will be a tournament team with this victory, while Mississippi State likely lost any chance they may have had at a #1 seed. More importantly for them, they now likely will be the #2 seed in the South and will find themselves in the same bracket as Duke. If the Bulldogs’ run this season falls short of San Antonio by one game, they make look back at this performance as being the decisive factor.

This was also the first game of the tournament where the atmosphere had the feeling of importance which signals that we have finally reached March. Both teams had respectable followings and each basket was met with a resounding cheer that helped create a sense of excitement in this back-and-forth affair. The Vanderbilt fans in particular created a very positive impression and really surprised me with their enthusiasm. When they all arrived at the arena with their white lab coats and their bunson burners, they did not look like a group that would create a great deal of noise during the affair. However underneath their pop bottle glasses and Member’s Only jackets, was a wild side that showed itself throughout the game. The Vandy fans seemed to really propel their team and were like a kid on Christmas morning in the moments following the game. They still need a bit of work if they are going to be major league taunters, as seen by one of their fan’s attempts to show-up the Mississippi State contingent with the chant, “now we are the #1 seed!” While I am not sure what that means, I am sure that Vanderbilt fans appreciated what may end up being one of the crowning achievements of a special season in the school’s history.

Florida 73 Alabama 71
The final game of the night also was the most exciting as the Florida Gators put a temporary end to their hideous SEC Tournament reputation with an impressive 73-71 win in overtime. The Gators actually had to hit not one, but two last-second shots to pull out the victory. At the end of regulation, Anthony Roberson hit a 25 foot jumper that left his hand just a tenth of a second after the buzzer went off. Then in overtime, after a mad scramble for a rebound, Freshman Lee Humphrey drained a jumper from the side as time expired to give the Gators a hard-fought win. Alabama put together an impressive performance throughout and likely were the better team. However the Gators showed heart, something that has often been missing from this program, and were able to win even while not putting forth a strong effort.

Part of the reason for their relatively poor game was the abysmal performance of Matt Walsh. The Florida guard picked up where he left off from the last regular season game against Kentucky with another poor shooting performance that involved two air balls and multiple wayward heaves. The game also illustrated what is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon in the conference, mainly the harsh (and unnecessary) taunting of the young teen idol. In the past couple of months, Matt Walsh has begun to encounter personal attacks from the student sections of rival schools the likes of which has not been seen since the days of Saul Smith. Likely due to his golden curly locks of hair and his Playboy centerfold girlfriend, Walsh is continually pelted with taunts that range from the mildly immature to the downright mean. While he has not yet heard the worst possible chants (they are reserved for Duke Sophomore JJ Redick), they may soon be coming as the attention seems to really get the best of Walsh. During tonight’s game he looked visibly shaken and seemed to be pressing, looking for some way to quiet the crowd. It has become common for Walsh to get booed mercilessly on every possession, and in a place where the crowds of other teams can join in (such as here in Atlanta) that noise can be quite deafening when at its height. It will be interesting to see how Billy Donovan can help his young guard respond. He has now been the target of severe abuse for two games and has played miserably in both affairs. How he can handle the attention in the future could have a profound impact on his team’s future success.

As it is late, I am going to quickly give my predictions for tomorrow. South Carolina maxed out their potential with their mini two-game run this weekend and I look for Kentucky to win by 15. Vandy and Florida should be a dog fight, but I see the Gators hitting the big shots when necessary and winning by six. I will remind you that my predictions are now 8-0 for the tournament, so instead of watching the games tomorrow, go plant a tree or fly a kite. The results are certain and you can be much more productive with other activities.

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