After losing to Tennessee to the final regular-season game, Kentucky hardly looked like a team capable of defending its national championship.
A week later, the Wildcats have changed that perception.
No. 14 Kentucky, atoning for what had been considered a disappointing season, used a 16-0 spurt at the end of the first half and beginning of the second to beat No. 22 Arkansas 76-63 Sunday and win the Southeastern Conference tournament.
"We lost a lot of guys from last year and had a lot of new faces," said Scott Padgett, who scored 20 points and was honored as tournament MVP. "We all wish we could have jelled quicker, but we're starting to jell now."
Kentucky (25-8) had its most regular-season losses since the 1989-90 season, including four defeats in the final seven games. The Wildcats lost the Eastern Division title to Tennessee with a 68-61 loss on Feb. 28.
But the SEC tournament always brings out the best in Kentucky, which upset No. 4 Auburn in the semifinals before wearing down Arkansas in the final.
"We sat down after the Tennessee game and looked at some film," Padgett said. "We realized there weren't a lot of major things we needed to work on, just some minor things. We made a goal to be 9-0 in the postseason. We're 3-0 right now."
The Wildcats can turn their attention to the NCAA tournament needing four victories to return to the Final Four, which is being held in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"We want to repeat in St. Pete," Heshimu Evans said.
The Razorbacks simply ran out of energy after playing past midnight in a quarterfinal game Friday and going to overtime to beat Mississippi State in Saturday's semifinals.
"We didn't quit," coach Noln Richardson said. "There's a difference between giving up and giving out."
The Wildcats, who receive an automatic NCAA bid, won their third straight SEC tournament title and seventh in eight years - a remarkable streak that has included only one loss in 24 games. That came in the 1996 final against Mississippi State.
At the buzzer, freshman Tayshaun Prince jumped into Wayne Turner's arms and the pro-Kentucky crowd of 25,521 at the Georgia Dome serenaded coach Tubby Smith with chants of "Tubby! Tubby! Tubby!"
Arkansas, which joined SEC for the 1991-92 season, has never won the tournament, losing twice to Kentucky in the finals.
"They've got the best team, and the best team usually wins," Richardson said. "You have to have size, shooting and rebounding. Kentucky has all the ingredients."
The Razorbacks (22-10) jumped to a 19-6 lead less than five minutes into the game, only to see the Wildcats bounce back as they always seem to do at this time of year.
Kentucky closed the first half with an 8-0 run to slice Arkansas' lead to 40-39. Padgett hit a 3-pointer and Evans scored the final four points, including a pair of free throws with five seconds remaining after drawing a charge from Kareem Reid.
The Wildcats went ahead for good by scoring the first eight points of the second half. Padgett missed two shots under the basket but kept working the boards, finally putting in his third attempt to put Kentucky ahead for the first time, 41-40.
| Kentucky's Saul Smith races T.J. Cleveland to a loose ball. (AP)|
Evans, Turner and Michael Bradley followed with three straight fastbreak baskets, giving the Wildcats a 47-40 lead and forcing Arkansas to call a 20-second timeout.
It didn't help - the Razorbacks got as close as four points only once and Kentucky won going away, holding Arkansas to 24 percent shooting in the second half with an aggressive zone defense that included the 6-foot-6 Evans or 6-8 freshman Tayshaun Prince roaming at the top of the key.
"Prince and Heshimu contested a lot of shots up there," Smith said.
The Razorbacks came out firing from beyond the 3-point arc, hitting five of their first six attempts for the 13-point lead. Chris Jefferies scored the first seven points and Reid capped the spurt with his second 3-pointer.
But then Kentucky's bench asserted itself, outscoring the Arkansas reserves 17-8 in the first half. Saul Smith hit a 3-pointer and Ryan Hogan connected on two straight from long range to make it 21-17.
The Wildcats didn't shoot particularly well, eithe from the field or the line, but put their size advantage to good use by crashing the boards for offensive rebounds. Arkansas, with no starter taller than 6-8, was further hampered when one of those players, Derek Hood, picked up his second foul less than four minutes into the game.
Hood, who had 10 points and 12 rebounds, fouled out with 3:57 remaining.
"We have to play twice as hard as any other team," Richardson said. "We can't play half-court basketball with a team that big. ... When trapping, double-teaming and running the floor, it's just so hard."
GO TO MARCH MAYHEM
© 1999 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved