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SEC Tournament: Cats roll past Arkansas for third straight conference tournament title

By Keith Taylor
KyForward Senior Sports Writer

NASHVILLE — Kentucky remains the best team in the Southeastern Conference.

The top-seeded and eighth-ranked Wildcats topped their regular-season title with a third straight conference tournament crown after posting an 82-65 victory over Arkansas Sunday at Bridgestone Arena.

Dominique Hawkins cuts down the net Sunday in Nashville after the Wildcats won their third straight SEC tournament title (Keith Taylor Photo)

Despite running the table in the conference tournament with three straight victories, Kentucky coach John Calipari doesn’t think it will have any bearing on his team’s placement in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

“I don’t think winning the SEC Tournament will have any say in what our seed is,” he said. “It never has. We could have won by 40. Whatever seed we had before the game, that’s what our seed will be.”

Kentucky (29-5) won its 11th straight game going into the Big Dance and captured the conference title for the 30th time in school history. The Wildcats have been unbeatable in Nashville during the past three seasons and have won nine straight league tournament games with a following that strongly resembles their home contingent.

“This tournament means a lot to me,” Kentucky senior Dominique Hawkins said. “(I’ve) been here for all four years (and) I never had a game like I did today. I felt like I took advantage of my playing time today.”

Hawkins, who joined teammates De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo on the all-tournament team, scored 14 points off the bench, but provided other contributions that paved the way for the blowout victory. Hawkins added four steals and two assists and it was his defensive presence of the bench that helped set the tone.

“Dom has been a spark plug off the bench,” Fox said. “This tournament proved that he deserves to be on the national stage like that.”

Arkansas fell to 26-9 overall and will join the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament next week. The Razorbacks forced four ties and six lead changes in the first half, but a 9-0 Kentucky run to end the half gave the Wildcats a 42-30 advantage at the break.

From that point on, the Razorbacks never threatened as the Wildcats defeated Arkansas for the fifth straight time. In their lone meeting of the regular season, Kentucky rolled to a 97-71 victory in Lexington.

“They had a pretty good ending to the first half,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “I thought that was big (for them) going into the second half.”

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Fox led the Wildcats with 18 points. Fox averaged 22 points during the tournament and was named Most Valuable Player. Bam Adebayo scored 17 points, including 10 in the first half, giving the Wildcats a boost in the post.

Playing against his hometown team, Kentucky freshman guard Malik Monk, followed Adebayo with 17 points. Monk concluded the five-day event by scoring 37 points in his last two games, despite tallying just eight points in his two previous contests.

Although Adebayo, Monk and Fox provided a bulk of the scoring, it was Kentucky’s senior trio of Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis and Mychal Mulder that provided some big moments in the finale, especially during the first half.

The three players combined for 14 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and three steals. Hawkins tallied nine points in the opening frame and his defensive created havoc for the Razorbacks, who never recovered from Kentucky’s late run to close the first half.

Led by Hawkins, the Wildcats got 21 points from the reserves.

“We’re building our bench,” Caliapri said. “Mychal, Derek and Dom have never played better. None of them have ever played better in their lives.”

Willis, Hawkins and Mulder drained Kentucky’s three shots from long range in the first half and Mulder’s buzzer-beating trey to end the half proved to be a dagger for Arkansas. Hawkins, connected on two 3-pointers, one in each half.

Things got testy in the final 1:30 as Arkansas was called for a Flagrant 1 and Flagrant 2 fouls in back-to-back sequence. Anderson said the fouls were the result of his team’s competitive nature.

“Sometimes the temperament gets out of hand,” he said. “I don’t think anybody was intent on trying to hurt anybody.”

Although tensions were high in the closing minutes, the Wildcats remained calm and collected.

“We just had to keep our composure and stay together as a team,” Monk said. “That’s what we did.”

Daryl Macon led Arkansas with 18 points, followed by Dusty Hannahs with 14 and Jaylen Barford with 13.

Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Northern Kentucky (NCAA 1st Round at Indianapolis), 9:20 p.m. Friday. TV/Radio: CBS, 98.1 FM WBUL

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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