KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Volunteers Tennessee had a chance for a statement win Tuesday night against the No. 3 Florida Gators.
But senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin and the Gators (22-2, 11-0) had other ideas.
Behind a terrific performance on both ends of the floor from Wilbekin, Florida won its 16 straight, beating Tennessee 67-58 for just its second win in its nine last trips to Thompson-Boling Arena.
Wilbekin finished with 21 points, six assists and four steals. His biggest shot came with 2:24 left, when, with the shot clock winding down, he made a 21-foot 3-pointer to extend Florida’s lead to 61-54. From there, Wilbekin made 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch to close out the game.
“This was the biggest thing on all of our minds today,” Wilbekin said, when asked about Florida’s recent struggles at Tennessee. “We weren’t thinking about anything else. We weren’t thinking about the last game. We weren’t thinking about the next game. We knew how important this win was to all of us.”
Forward Jarnell Stokes led Tennessee with 20 points and 11 rebounds and guard Jordan McRae added 17 points. But it was not enough for the Vols (15-9, 6-5) to avoid their second loss against the Gators this season.
“We came out and played with fire,” Stokes said. “They made shots down the stretch. They rebounded down the stretch. Losses like this, it’s hard because we were right there.”
Guard Michael Frazier II added 11 points for Florida and senior center Patric Young had six points and six rebounds before fouling out with 28 seconds left. Young also came up with a huge hustle play late, diving for a loose ball that allowed Florida to retain possession up 61-55 with 1:35 remaining. The Gators were able to bleed another 35 seconds off the clock. After sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith corralled another offensive rebound for the Gators, Wilbekin was fouled and made one of two free throws with 52 seconds left to extend UF’s lead to 62-55.
“It was an incredible play by (Young),” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He sold out. Two guys were in front of him and he ran past them and made an incredible save and just came up with the loose ball. It was just an incredible play by him just effort-wise with him with four fouls.”
Facing the chance to pick up a statement win at home, Tennessee showed some early jitters, turning the ball over on six of its first nine possessions. Wilbekin had three steals during that span, including a steal and breakaway layup that gave the Gators an early 10-2 lead.
The Volunteers regrouped, and McRae hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut Florida’s lead to 13-8. McRae later sank a jumper to cut Florida’s lead to 22-16, then finished a breakaway dunk in transition to cut the margin to 24-22.
After two free throws from Florida senior forward Casey Prather put the Gators up 26-22, Tennessee went on a 10-0 run. Stokes scored the first six points of the run, including a put-back that gave the home team its first lead (28-26) since the opening seconds of the game.
Senior point guard Antonio Barton then scored on a runner in the lane and a jumper to extend Tennessee’s lead to 32-26.
Florida closed the half with a 7-2 run. Wilbekin grabbed a defensive rebound and drove the length of the floor, scoring a runner in the lane at the buzzer to cut Tennessee’s lead to 34-33 at halftime.
The Gators shot 36.4 percent from the field in the first half. Tennessee shot 62.5 percent but committed nine first-half turnovers.
For the game, Tennessee outshot Florida, 45.8 percent to 36.2 percent. The Volunteers finished with 15 turnovers, while the Gators gave the ball away 12 times. Florida also outrebounded Tennessee 39-32, after getting outrebounded 40-35 in the first meeting between the two schools.
“Billy Donovan probably had them fired up about going to the glass, letting them know that’s one of our strengths,” Stokes said. “There were a lot of tipped balls, a lot of 50-50 balls. If I were to take it back, I wouldn’t have left in my teammates hands to get some of those balls. I would have grabbed them myself.”
NOTES: Tennessee freshman Darius Thompson
Alabama fires head coach Grant
Alabama fired head basketball coach Anthony Grant on Sunday after six seasons.
The Crimson Tide struggled over the final two months of the season, finishing 18-14 and tied for eighth in the Southeastern Conference.
Grant, 48, won at least 20 games three times and made an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012. His Alabama teams went 117-85, including two NIT appearances (2011 and 2013). He came to Alabama from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he went 76-25 and made two NCAA Tournament appearances.
“This has been a very difficult decision, as I have the highest respect for Anthony as a coach, as a molder of young men, and as a person,” Alabama athletic director Bill Battle said in a statement. “Anthony is a man of impeccable character who has been an excellent representative of our program. He has made tremendous contributions to our program and we always will be grateful for his efforts. Anthony, his wife Chris, and their children have been tremendous assets to our University and our community.
“In this business we are ultimately judged by wins and losses on the court and, for a variety of reasons, we haven’t made satisfactory progress in that area.”
Kentucky routs Arkansas for SEC tourney title
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — No. 1-ranked Kentucky will take a perfect 34-0 record into the NCAA Tournament this week after thrashing Arkansas 78-63 in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game Sunday at Bridgestone Arena.
The conference tournament title is the 28th for Kentucky, meaning the Wildcats have won more than half of the 55 tournaments.
“This team has a lot of dog in it,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Good, hard fought game. Arkansas is a ranked team, but we kind of did our thing.”
Junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who was named tournament MVP, paced Kentucky with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. It was his first double-double since the Columbia game on Dec. 10.
Cauley-Stein was joined on the all-tournament team by twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison of Kentucky, Michael Qualls of Arkansas and K.T. Harrell of Auburn.
Andrew Harrison, a sophomore guard, scored 15 points. Twin brother Aaron Harrison had 11 points and six assists. Freshman guard Tyler Ulis added eight points and six assists.
Guard Michael Qualls topped No. 21 Arkansas (26-8) with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Forward Bobby Portis had 13 points.
“Our guys came out and scratched and clawed,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “But at the end, I thought their depth and size were hard to overcome. If a team is going to beat them, you’ve got to make shots as well as match their energy.”
The finals pitted the top two seeds in Kentucky and Arkansas, but the Wildcats wasted little time proving that winning the regular season by five games was no fluke. Kentucky roared out to an 8-0 lead within the first two minutes, forcing Anderson to call an early timeout. Point guard Andrew Harrison scored six of the eight on a pair of 3-pointers.
“If the other team is angry, mad, hateful, jealous, the physiology of that is real close to fear,” Calipari said. “When a team comes in that way, if you can just play and that thing turns into fear, you separate yourself. Joy, the love of playing, always beats angry, mean, hateful, jealous.”
Arkansas managed to score five unanswered points after the break and eventually tied the game at 10-10 on a 3-pointer by Portis. The SEC player of the year had missed 16 of his previous 17 shots in the tournament before the basket.
The game was tied 19-19 with 10:18 to play in the first half when Kentucky caught fire, scoring 16 points in 5:05 for a 35-23 lead. Aaron Harrison scored six points during the 16-4 run on a pair of 3-pointers. He also assisted on two dunks by Cauley-Stein and a basket in the paint by sophomore center Dakari Johnson. Freshman center Karl-Anthony Towns accounted for the remaining four points.
All six Kentucky field goals during the run were accompanied by an assist, including three by Aaron Harrison. At the time, Kentucky was shooting 59 percent (13 of 22), including 5 of 6 on three-pointers.
Kentucky went on to expand the lead to 16 points by halftime, 41-25, meaning the Wildcats outscored Arkansas 22-6 over the final 10:18 of the first half.
Cauley-Stein led the way in the first half with eight points and eight rebounds. Aaron Harrison added eight points and six assists. Andrew Harrison scored six points.
Kentucky shots 51.9 percent in the first half, and 12 of the 14 baskets came via assists. The Wildcats were 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.
Arkansas, which never led, shot just 29 percent in the first half. Portis topped the Razorbacks with seven points. Arkansas had just two assists and five turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
In the second half, Arkansas managed to trim Kentucky’s lead from 16 to nine at 48-39 at the 11:55 mark. During that time, Towns picked up his fourth personal foul with 14:07 to play.
“We cut it to nine points in the second half, but we couldn’t get over the hump,” Anderson said.
From that point forward the two teams battled mostly to a draw before Kentucky pulled away late in the half.
Kentucky pushed the lead back 18 points at 6:10 thanks to an 11-2 run.
Kentucky’s largest lead of the game was 21 points, which came with 2:41 to play.
Wisconsin earns top seed after conference tournament win
CHICAGO — The Wisconsin Badgers earned a historic NCAA top seed Sunday, but their approach going forward will be strictly business as usual.
Wisconsin (31-3) beat Michigan State 80-69 in overtime in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament title game to complete a championship sweep and were rewarded with the first No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in program history.
“I’m sure it will sink in,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “What we need right now is to get these guys back (home). We have class tomorrow, some of these guys have tests, they’ve got midterms this week. So it will be business as usual for our student-athletes.”
But players like forward Frank Kaminsky, the Big Ten tournament most outstanding player, are pretty pumped up.
“It’s awesome,” Kaminsky said. “First No. 1 seed in program history. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself, but we have a lot of goals and aspirations in the NCAA Tournament. So we’re going to prepare for our first game and be ready we tip the ball up.”
No. 6 ranked Wisconsin, the league’s regular-season champion, claimed the Big Ten’s automatic NCAA berth with the overtime win at the United Center and meets No. 16 Coastal Carolina (24-9) in Friday’s West Region opener in Omaha, Neb.
The overtime outcome was the first in Big Ten tournament history.
Michigan State (23-11) is also tourney bound with a No. 7 seed in the East Region. The Spartans will face Georgia, which is the 10th seed, on Friday in Charlotte, N.C.
Ryan was initially at a loss for words after the Badgers’ dramatic come-from-behind win.
“I’m speechless and that’s hard to do,” he said. “It was the fight in this group, and to do what they did when it seemed like Michigan State couldn’t do anything wrong. I just hope we have something left in us come NCAA Tournament time.”
The Badgers rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit and back into contention late in the game. They then scored 11 unanswered points in overtime behind seven points form forward Nigel Hayes.
Hayes closed with a game-high 25 points and was 12-for-12 from the free throw line. Kaminsky had 19, guard Bronson Koenig finished with 18 while reserve forward Duje Dukan added 11.
Michigan State, making its third title game appearance in four years, was led by forward Branden Dawson and guard Denzel Valentine with 16 apiece while reserve guard Bryn Forbes had 10.
“I thought we played one of the greatest games we’ve ever played for 32, 32 and one-half minutes or 35, 36 minutes,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “And then we made a couple of mistakes and they made a couple of great shots and that’s the way the game goes.”
Wisconsin trailed 57-46 in the second half when Koenig launched a comeback with a 3-pointer and added another with 4:19 left to give the Badgers a temporary 60-59 lead.
“We were down eleven and they thought they had it in the bag,” Koenig said. “But I kept reminding my teammates that we were never going to give up.”
Guard Lourawls Nairn’s 3-pointer then put Michigan State up 62-60 as the teams exchanged leads three times and tied four times. The last in regulation came on Koenig’s two free throws for a 69-69 deadlock.
A potential game-winning shot by Dawson rolled in and out as regulation time expired.
In the first half, Michigan State outscored Wisconsin 10-5 in the final 3:25 for a 32-31 halftime lead after a half that saw with seven lead changes and five ties. The Spartans opened a 32-28 lead after a turnover by Koenig and a rebound put back by forward Marvin Clark with 25 seconds showing. But Wisconsin narrowed the deficit to 32-31 as Kaminsky hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
It was the Badger’s fifth successful shot from beyond the arc in the half. Wisconsin ended 13-of-26 (50 percent) on 3-point shooting for the game.
NOTES: Sunday’s game was tied 13 times and had 14 lead changes. … The Badgers claimed a 68-61 win in March in the long regular season meeting behind F Frank Kaminsky’s season-high 31 points. … The Badgers’ two previous Big Ten tournament titles came in wins over Illinois in 2004 and 2008. … Wisconsin’s 31 wins match an all-time