NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)– The top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats are taking a 34-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament in their quest for title.
Willie Cauley-Stein scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and Kentucky never trailed in beating No. 21 Arkansas 78-63 on Sunday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game.
The Wildcats (34-0) are only the fourth team to go into the NCAA Tournament undefeated since Indiana finished off the last perfect season with a title in 1976. They paired their 28th SEC tournament title with their 46th regular season championship.
Andrew Harrison also scored 15 points for Kentucky, and his brother Aaron had 11.
The Razorbacks (26-8) were trying to win their second tournament title and first since 2000. Michael Qualls, coming off the bench for only the second time this season, scored 18 points, while Bobby Portis, the coaches’ pick for SEC player of the year, added 13.
Unlike last season when Arkansas swept Kentucky, these Wildcats proved to be just too good. With coach John Calipari rotating Wildcats, they simply ran around the Razorbacks’ usually stifling pressure defense or passed over them.
Kentucky scored the first eight points as Andrew Harrison hit two 3s early. Arkansas had not trailed in this tournament, yet against Kentucky the best the Razorbacks could do was tie the game four times with the last at 19-all on a 3-pointer by Qualls with 7:59 left.
By the time the Razorbacks worked the ball inside against Kentucky’s blue wall, they struggled to knock down shots. After Qualls’ 3, they didn’t score another field goal the rest of the half. Kentucky scored seven straight as part of a 16-4 run to finish the half with a 41-25 lead.
Arkansas started the second half much better and got as close as nine points four times, the last on another jumper by Qualls, before Kentucky reeled off an 11-2 spurt. Cauley-Stein grabbed a rebound and his putback capped the run and gave Kentucky its biggest lead at 65-47.
From there, the Wildcats pushed the lead to as many as 21 points down the stretch.
Arkansas now awaits an NCAA Tournament berth. The NCAA Selection Show will take place today at 5 p.m. on CBS.