Rocky low for UT: Cats headed to championship [SLIDESHOW]

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It was physical, it was intense, it was a rivalry, and it was a rout.

Leading by only six points, UK (31-2, 14-2 Southeastern Conference) scored 29 of the game’s final 35 points, and blitzed Tennessee 74-45 to advance to their first SEC Tournament championship game since 2005.

“We knew it was going to be a tough game from the start,” said freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins who finished with a game-high 19 points and 15 rebounds in 26 minutes of action. “I mean, the first two times we played them, it was the same way. We’re two competitive teams with competitive athletes on the team. It was a battle, but we came in with the win.”

That competitiveness may have gotten out of hand with 3:33 on the clock. With two technical fouls already in the books, Tennessee junior guard Melvin Goins connected with Cousins on a hard elbow below the belt. Cousins and Goins were both assessed technical fouls, initially, the third and fourth of the game. Upon review of tape, the officials then assessed Goins an additional flagrant foul and ejected him from the game.

“I don’t really know what that was about,” said Cousins of Goins’ hit. “I thought it was a bad play.”

Cousins, whose volatile emotions have been well documented throughout the season, showed his growth in maturity during the game. While the big man from Mobile, Ala., said he still didn’t hold his composure together completely after “blurting some things,” it was Cousins that raced from the foul line to separate teammate Daniel Orton from Tennessee senior forward Wayne Chism when he saw the two jawing at each other with an official close by, and it was Cousins who stayed out of foul trouble.

“A lot of stuff happened tonight, a lot of emotions happened tonight, but DeMarcus just continued to push through,” junior forward Patrick Patterson said.

Goins’ blow was the culmination of an afternoon littered with trash talking, hard falls and frustration. Some of that frustration came from UK’s own bench.

In the first half freshman forward Daniel Orton left the bench and began walking down the tunnel toward the locker room before UK assistant strength coach Scott Padgett raced back to get him. Orton said he was told to go to the locker room to cool down.

“Emotions got caught up and everybody got caught up in the moment,” Orton said. “It’s basketball, it’s a really emotional sport and I think everybody just got caught up. Words were exchanged but we apologized about it.”

With the strong rivalry between the two bordering state schools in a central location and a conference championship game birth on the line, the atmosphere at Bridgestone Arena was electric.

Each time the Tennessee band began playing “Rocky Top,” Cats fans would break out with chants of “Go Big Blue,” drowning the band out on numerous occasions.

“I feel like we were playing at our arena to see our fans there,” freshman guard John Wall said. “We just feel like everywhere we go, our fans support us the most.”

Behind the strong crowd support, the Cats opened up a 13-point lead at the end of the first half to go into the break with a 32-19 advantage. UK’s defense held the Vols to 28.6 percent shooting in the opening half, and zero field goals in the final six minutes.

After the Volunteers cut the UK lead to six points on a layup by junior center Brian Williams with 9:27 remaining, the Cats’ defense clamped down and Tennessee made just one field goal for the rest of the game.

The Cats began the run their 29-6 run to close out the game with a dunk from Patterson assisted by Wall. Wall then found Eric Bledsoe in the corner for his fourth 3-pointer of the game prompting a timeout from Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl.

Following technical fouls issued to Orton and Tennessee senior forward Wayne Chism, sophomore guard Darnell Dodson hit two, 3-pointers and slammed home an alley-oop from Darius Miller on three consecutive possessions and the rout was under way.

“Winning the championship does matter to us,” Patterson said. “We know the overall number one objective is to have an overall number one seed (in the NCAA Tournament). That’s our main focus and our main goal. But we all want to win this SEC Championship.”