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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The buzzer sounded and DeMarcus Cousins raced to the other end of the court with arms spread wide after hitting what he called the biggest shot of his career. Pandemonium erupted throughout a tense Bridgestone Arena and John Wall was in hot pursuit of his teammate.
The end result was a strong tackle, a bloody nose and overtime at the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
“I thought John broke my nose,” Cousins said. “I knew we were just going into overtime, I was just happy I made the shot … but John didn’t know and he thought we won. I mean, he almost killed me.”
“I was in another world,” Wall said. “I thought we won.”
Contrary to Wall’s belief, Cousins’ layup off Wall’s airball as time expired only tied the game at 64. The Cats then huddled together to prepare for their second overtime game against Mississippi State in less than a month.
“I knew we were going to win (in overtime),” Cousins said.
For 39 minutes the two freshmen were all but absent from the scoring part of the game. In the final minute they were the difference and the Cats came out with a 75-74 overtime victory over MSU and their 26th SEC Tournament Championship.
Wall and Cousins combined to score just 12 points in the first 39 minutes of Sunday’s showdown. But a Wall steal deep in the MSU backcourt with leading to a layup with 39.6 seconds and Cousins’ game-tying layup as the buzzer sounded were all the Cats needed.
Cousins’ heroics couldn’t have happened unless Bledsoe perfected what he later called the best missed shot ever.
Down three, Bledsoe was fouled by MSU guard Barry Stewart with 4.9 seconds remaining. After sinking the first free throw, Bledsoe intentionally missed the second free throw by arching it well up into the air.
“I actually practice it over and over,” Bledsoe said. “… When I shoot it (in practice) I always know I’m going to need it in the long run.”
Tied up at 69 in the extra session, Bledsoe hit a running jumper with 1:20 remaining to give the Cats a 71-69 lead. On the next UK possession, Wall hit an off-balance 3-pointer under duress and only three seconds remaining on the shot clock to push the UK lead to five.
“It’s John Wall, he makes plays like that,” junior forward Patrick Patterson said. “And luckily he’s on my team.”
MSU cut the lead to three to keep their tournament championship hopes alive after a layup by MSU sophomore guard Dee Bost. Cousins then hit one free throw after getting fouled with 5.3 seconds left on the clock to push the UK lead to four points. The free throw ended up being the game-winner for UK after MSU’s Riley Benock hit a 3-pointer as time expired to make the score 75-74.
“We were not supposed to win today,” Cousins said. “Out of all the wins we’ve had this was probably our luckiest one.”
The win came for UK despite being almost completely assured of receiving a No. 1 seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament. Cousins said they weren’t just playing because they were in the conference, but that they wanted to win the championship.
Despite starting five players who have never played in an NCAA Tournament game, Patterson credited the youthful Cats’ will to win as what put them over the top.
“We just have the will to win,” Patterson said. “Nobody surrenders, nobody backs down. We all think that we’re going to win even when we’re down in the toughest situation.”
Trailing by four points at halftime, the second half started in a blur for the Cats. Racing up and down the court, UK stormed out of the halftime break on a 9-3 run highlighted by Bledsoe, Cousins and Wall.
Bledsoe began the half with a 3-pointer, followed up by a shot clock violation on MSU. Two Cousins dunks and a layup by Wall gave the Cats a 40-38 and forced MSU head coach Rick Stansbury into a timeout.
“That’s a championship caliber game we just played and every game like that in the tournament, I believe, is going to be that way so it’s going to help us a lot,” Cousins said. “We got a big time game under our belts so we should be prepared for another one.”
After being held scoreless in the first half due to foul trouble, Cousins poured in 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for his 20th double-double of the season. Wall struggled shooting from the field, but finished with 17 points, nine assists, six rebounds and SEC Tournament MVP honors. Bledsoe led all UK scorers with 18 points. The three freshmen they call “The Three Amigos,” were each named to the All-Tournament Team.
“It feels good to bring the tradition back to Kentucky, to where Kentucky used to be,” Bledsoe said. “It feels special for us freshmen and the people on our team who have never been in this situation.”