ATLANTA - After four days and 12 games, the top two teams were left standing in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
No. 2 seed Kentucky used 22 points from Aaron Harrison and defeated third-seeded Georgia 70-58 in the semifinals at the Georgia Dome. The Wildcats (24-9), who lost three of their last four regular season games, will play top seed Florida in Sunday’s championship game.
Harrison, a freshman from Richmond, Texas, was 4 of 7 on 3-pointers, and his twin brother Andrew and James Young each knocked down two. That was part of a 56 percent shooting performance from behind the arc, and a 51 percent shooting day overall, for the Wildcats. Andrew Harrison set a career-high in assists for the second consecutive day, handing out nine Saturday to top the eight he had in a quarterfinal win over LSU.
“My teammates, they’re making me look good right now,” said Andrew Harrison. “I’m finding them and they’re knocking down some shots.”
Kentucky held a slim 46-43 lead before embarking on a game-turning run. Dakari Johnson rebounded a miss and converted a lay up for a five-point advantage. Johnson was fouled and missed the free throw, but Willie Cauley-Stein corralled that rebound and fed Aaron Harrison for a three. After a Georgia miss, Young had a put back for two of his 14 points and the Wildcats led 53-43, forcing a Georgia timeout.
The Kentucky cushion didn’t fall below eight points the rest of the way.
“They had back to back buckets so that was a critical part of the game, it really was,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “Give (Kentucky) credit, when the plays had to be made, they made them. Kentucky’s a really good basketball team.”
“We’ve been a good rebounding team all year…we’re kind of spreading out. (And) when you have James Young and Aaron playing as well as they are at those wings, it makes us a pretty good team,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari.
Kentucky got off to a fast start, hitting five of its first six shots to build a 12-2 lead. Georgia (19-13) settled in and trailed just 36-32 at halftime.
Kenny Gaines scored all of his team-high 13 points in the second half for Georgia, which was back in the semifinals for the first time since winning the 2008 tournament.
Regular season champion Florida moved to 20-0 against SEC competition with a dominant defensive effort in the second half of a 56-49 victory over fourth-seeded Tennessee in the first semifinal of the day.
The Vols led by as much as 10 points in the opening half and 35-28 at halftime, but the conference’s top defense played an excellent last 20 minutes.
Tennessee, which dropped its fourth consecutive game to Florida in the league tournament, went up 43-38 on a bucket by Jarnell Stokes at the 12:16 mark. The Vols followed with a 9 1/2-minute field goal drought, missing eight consecutive shots in the process, and Florida had a 49-45 lead with about 4 1/2 minutes to play.
Jordan McRae (team-high 15 points) finally broke the shooting slump, knocking down a 3-pointer that evened things up at 49-49 with 2:48 remaining in the game.
Tennessee wouldn’t score again. Patric Young, who scored a game-high 16 points, ended a 6 1/2 minute field goal drought for the Gators with a jumper at the 2:24 mark that put the top seed up for good at 51-49. Two of Tennessee’s 16 turnovers and 5 of 6 free throws over the final 1:21 helped Florida hang on.
“I think first, we’re obviously excited to be able to move on and play (Sunday),” said Florida coach Billy Donovan. “I thought the second half we did a really, really good job defensively.”
The Gators (31-2), which take a 25-game winning streak into the championship game, have lost their last two league title games, including last year’s 66-63 defeat at the hands of Mississippi. The last Florida team to win the tournament crown was the 2007 squad that eventual won its second straight national title. Tennessee (21-12) hasn’t reached the title game since finishing as the runner-up in 2009.