NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Michael Qualls scored 15 points and No. 21 Arkansas beat third-seeded Georgia 60-49 on Saturday in the Southeastern Conference semifinals.
The second-seeded Razorbacks (26-7) will play top-ranked Kentucky on Sunday in their sixth championship game and first time since 2008.
Both teams struggled in a sluggish game for teams that played Friday night, with Georgia leaving the arena around midnight.
Bobby Portis scored a season-low four points for Arkansas. The coaches’ pick for the SEC’s best player hit only one of 14 shots, though he grabbed 12 rebounds. Portis looked frustrated as he missed his first eight shots before finally grabbing a rebound and putting it back up for his first bucket with 15:06 left. He made up for that on the boards.
Georgia (21-11) failed for a second straight year to reach the Bulldogs’ first final since 2008 when they won a tournament rearranged by tornadoes that hit Atlanta.
Marcus Thornton and Cameron Forte each scored 13 points for Georgia, and Taylor Echols had 10.
The Bulldogs, who’ve been banged up most of the SEC season, played without junior guard Kenny Gaines who had his sprained left ankle stepped on in Friday night’s win over South Carolina. Coach Mark Fox played guard Juwan Parker, who missed 15 games this season with a sore Achilles, but he played six minutes and grabbed two rebounds.
When Thornton went down hard early, Fox even helped his senior forward up off the floor.
That left Georgia turning elsewhere for help, and Forte came off the bench to score 11 of the Bulldogs’ first 15 points topping his season high before halftime.
It wasn’t enough as Georgia managed only to tie up Arkansas once at 12 late in the first half off a Forte layup. Qualls answered with a dunk to put the Razorbacks ahead to stay, and they pushed the lead out to 25-17 at halftime.
With Georgia hitting only one of its first eight shots in the second half, Arkansas didn’t need its swarming defense to force the Bulldogs into mistakes and turnovers. The Razorbacks just kept padding their lead, finally going up by as44-25 on back-to-back 3s by Anthlon Bell with 13:08 to go. Georgia tried to rally with an 11-3 run to get within nine at 56-47 on a 3 by Taylor Echols. Qualls answered with two free throws to push it back to double digits.
About the only thing that didn’t go Arkansas’ way in the second half was when Qualls went flying in for a dunk that smashed off the rim, a miss that left Qualls smiling at himself.
Arkansas will now face No. 1 Kentucky in the SEC Tournament Championships at 12:00 p.m., CT on Sunday.