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March 14, 2010

Kentucky Preview

Before Kentucky can focus on a run toward a national championship, it has a chance to reclaim some glory in another tournament its dominated over the years.

The second-ranked Wildcats look for their first SEC tournament title in six years Sunday when they face defending conference champion Mississippi State, a team whose postseason status remains uncertain.

Kentucky (31-2) has won a record 25 SEC tournament championships, but none since 2004. That could change as the Wildcats return to the finals for the first time since 2005 after a 74-45 rout of 15th-ranked Tennessee in Saturday's semifinal.

"We're trying to do something special. So far we're doing it, so we're going to keep on playing,'' said freshman Eric Bledsoe, who had 17 points.

The Wildcats hoped to use this event to solidify the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. They made a strong case by dominating the Vols. Freshman DeMarcus Cousins had 19 points with 15 rebounds, and star John Wall added 14 points with nine assists as Kentucky shot 52.1 percent while holding the Vols to 19 first-half points and 30.9 percent shooting for the game.

"We just try to get better every game and hopefully win a championship (Sunday)," said Wall, who was coming off a 23-point effort in Friday's six-point win over Alabama.

The Wildcats will have to dethrone Mississippi State (23-10), which won four games in four days to win its third tournament title in 2009.

After beating No. 20 Vanderbilt 62-52 on Saturday, the Bulldogs would only need to win three games to repeat as champions. That also might be the only way they qualify for the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid not guaranteed for the SEC West Division champions .

"Being in this tournament, there's no question it's a positive thing," said Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury, whose team has held its first two opponents to a combined 38.8 percent shooting. "Having success, knowing you can win.

"(Our players) worried about the things that they've got to worry about. That's what happens between the lines. That's the only thing we're in charge of."

Kentucky snapped a three-game losing streak in the series with an 81-75 overtime win at Mississippi State on Feb. 16. Cousins and Patrick Patterson each had 19 points, while Wall added 18. All three also posted double-digit rebound totals as the Wildcats overcame a 4-for-24 shooting performance from beyond the arc by holding the Bulldogs to 38.6 percent shooting from the field.

"They're one of the best teams in the country, and when they came to our place, we had them, but it slipped out of our hands," said Bulldogs forward Jarvis Varnado, who had six blocks against the Commodores. "We want this rematch, and we'll be up for it."

Mississippi State might feel like they're playing a true road game Sunday while facing a backdrop of blue-clad Kentucky fans who've traveled in droves to Nashville, Tenn., to support their team this weekend.

"Big Blue, as you well know, they're going to travel. No question the place will be packed with them,'' Stansbury said. "I would hope all those (other school's) fans that are still left here - we need all those fans for us."

Mississippi State's Barry Stewart, who recorded 16 points and five steals against Kentucky last month, had 14 with eight rebounds Saturday.



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