Cats bow out in SEC Tournament opener

Published 6:55 pm Monday, March 18, 2024

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It was another one-and-done showing for Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

For the second year in a row, the Wildcats suffered a defeat to open the postseason, this time dropping a 97-87 setback to Texas A&M Friday night at Bridgestone Arena. Kentucky led for 41 seconds, while the Aggies, in desperation mode with their NCAA tournament life at stake, dominated from start to finish.

“They played a physical game (and) did a great job,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Defensively they made it hard. Just wasn’t one of our better games.”

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That’s been the trend for the Wildcats lately in the postseason.

Kentucky (23-9) didn’t lose a game and went 13-0 while winning SEC tournament titles from 2015-18, but it has won just one game in the last five tries to open the postseason. The team’s lone win during the past six years was a six-point win over Vanderbilt three years ago in Tampa.

Kentucky and Tennessee, the top two seeds in the tournament, bowed out of the five-day event on the same day. The Volunteers dropped a 73-56 loss to Mississippi State in the first of four quarterfinal round games.

“Your first game is the hardest one,” Calipari said. “I told them that. I’ve done this a long, long time. Been in a lot of these kind of tournaments, a lot of NCAA tournaments. (The) hardest game is the first one when you got a team like we have. When you get by the first one, a little bit more of a downhill run. There are teams around the country right now losing this game because they’re learning it, that that first one’s a hard one.”

One of the hottest teams in the league coming into the contest, Kentucky had a five-game winning streak snapped despite making a push for one of the top seeds in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Although not a proponent of league tournaments, Calipari was disappointed for the fan base, which filled the arena to capacity.

“They were frustrated and disappointed. I felt for the fans,” he said. “I said it to Tom (Leach) after (the game) on the radio. You want to win for them. They put everything into being here, all that. You want to win for them. … Sometimes your teams don’t play well. Sometimes they do and you advance and you win. Sometimes they don’t. Especially young teams. We didn’t do it today.”

On the bubble to receive a bid for the NCAA Tournament, Texas A&M may have secured itself a spot in the 68-team field after posting back-to-back wins to open the league tournament and advance to the semifinals for the third straight season.

The Aggies, who defeated the Wildcats 97-92 at College Station on Jan. 13, used the same recipe the second time. Texas A&M outrebounded the No. 2 seed 38-34, including 13 offensive rebounds that led to 26 second-chance points. The Aggies also scored 18 points off of 14 Kentucky turnovers and connected on 11 timely 3-pointers.

“A lot of that was on us, “Kentucky guard Reed Sheppard said. “We didn’t play like we’ve normally been playing. We didn’t share the ball. We got selfish and tried to make home run plays, just try and take over the game by ourselves.”

Rob Dillingham led Kentucky with 27 points, followed by Sheppard with 14 and Antonio Reeves with 13. Reeves was hindered by foul trouble and played just nine minutes in the first half.

Wade Taylor IV led the Aggies with 32 points and made six shots from long range. Tyrece Radford added 23, Manny Obaseki had 17 and Soloman Washington scored 11.