ST. LOUIS — John Calipari kept telling anyone who would listen that this group of Kentucky freshmen just needed a little more time than most to figure things out.
That faith was shaken when the Wildcats lost four straight games last month. But they delivered on their coach’s optimism on Sunday.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 29 points, and Kentucky beat No. 13 Tennessee 77-72 for its fourth straight Southeastern Conference Tournament championship.
It’s the 31st title in tournament history for the Wildcats, whose No. 4 seed in the event was the lowest in Calipari’s nine seasons at the school. The Wildcats (24-10) were one defeat away last month from what would have been the longest losing streak in the Calipari era, but they have won seven of eight since — including their first in three tries this season against the No. 2 seed Volunteers.
All in all, it’s a Kentucky group that appears primed for next week’s NCAA Tournament.
“A month ago, I wasn’t sure we’d be in the tournament,” Calipari said. “And then I had to ask … ‘Does everybody get to go to the SEC tournament?’ I wasn’t even sure we’d get here. But I come back to this: We needed to lose those games. We needed to lose four in a row.”
Despite racing to a 17-point lead in the first half Sunday, the Wildcats’ seemingly annual SEC Tournament coronation was delayed by a Tennessee team trying to win its first title in almost 40 years.
But Gilgeous-Alexander capped his tournament Most Valuable Player performance by hitting the clinching free throws with 2.4 seconds remaining, sending the overwhelmingly Kentucky crowd of 18,974 into a wild celebration. The freshman guard finished 10 of 16 from the field with seven rebounds and a pair of steals.
Kevin Knox had 18 points for the Wildcats, and Quade Green finished with 10.
“Shai has the ball in his hands a lot during the game, and he’s really grown over the year and be able to get his points and get other people involved,” Knox said. “I think right now he’s playing his best basketball because he’s one of our leaders.”
Admiral Schofield had 22 points and 10 rebounds for Tennessee (25-8), which was attempting to win its first tournament championship since 1979. Grant Williams added 15 points, while Jordan Bone scored 12 and Lamonte Turner had 10.
A night after hitting 11 of their first 12 shots and 76 percent (19 of 25) in the first half of a semifinal win over Arkansas , the Volunteers didn’t fare nearly as well early on Sunday. They made only five of their first 25 shots and fell behind 33-16 midway through the first half. Schofield, however, responded by scoring Tennessee’s final 13 points of the half, capping a 15-3 run that pulled the Volunteers within 36-31 at halftime.
“We started the game and dug ourselves a hole and, obviously, they were making some shots,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We weren’t playing the way we were capable of; we just weren’t locked in.”
Kentucky: The championship game appearance was the fifth straight for the Wildcats and their eighth in nine seasons under Calipari. Kentucky is 22-3 in the SEC Tournament under Calipari.
Tennessee: The Volunteers were picked to finish 13th in the SEC during the preseason, but they finished as the co-regular-season champions with No. 16 Auburn. Regardless of Sunday’s result, Tennessee already had a spot in next week’s NCAA Tournament. The trip will make Tennessee the fourth school Barnes has taken to the tournament, joining Providence, Clemson and Texas.
Both teams wait on their NCAA Tournament opponents.
Follow Kurt Voigt on Twitter at @Kurt_Voigt_AP