NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Arkansas Razorbacks came to Music City wanting to win a Southeastern Conference Tournament championship, and now they have their chance.
They just have to go through top-ranked and undefeated Kentucky.
“There’s been a tremendous history with Arkansas and Kentucky, and of course they’re playing at another level right now,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said about Kentucky. “So we look forward to the opportunity. We look forward to the challenge. We’re just going to go and be who we are.”
The 21st-ranked Razorbacks advanced by beating third-seeded Georgia 60-49 on Saturday in the semifinals. This will be the sixth appearance in the championship game for second-seeded Arkansas (26-7) and first since 2008. Arkansas has only one SEC tournament title, and that was back in 2000.
“That will be a great accomplishment for the state and this team,” said Arkansas guard Michael Qualls, who scored a team-high 15 points.
Kentucky won the only game between the teams Feb. 28, 84-67, in Lexington.
Arkansas and Georgia 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, snapping his school record streak of 27 straight games in double figures. 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 grabbing a rebound and putting it back up for his first bucket with 15:06 left.
“He’s human, that’s what I say,” Anderson said. “He’s human. The guy has been so consistent he’s been like a machine. But the beauty of it is look at all the other things he did. He didn’t score now, it wasn’t because he wasn’t trying.”
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 a career-high 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 before aggravating his leg.
When Thornton went down hard early, Fox even helped his senior forward up off the floor.
“I thought the fatigue for both teams affected each of us,” Fox said. “It’s a challenging schedule. We had to do it two years in a row. It’s a challenging schedule.”
That left Georgia turning elsewhere, and Forte came off the bench to score 11 of the Bulldogs’ first 15 points topping his season high by 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.
The Razorbacks just kept padding their lead, finally going up by 19 at 44-25 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.
Georgia: The Bulldogs lost in the semifinals for a second straight year. … Third in the SEC in made free throws, the Bulldogs shot 56.6 percent (13 of 23). … They turned it over 11 times in their first game with Arkansas this season but had only 12 for this game.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks have only one tournament title since joining the SEC in 1992, and that was back in 2000. … They now have won five of their last six semifinal appearances, but this was their first since 2008 when they lost the final to Georgia. … They hit 12 of 15 at the line.
PORTIS’ PERFORMANCE: This was only the second time this season Portis didn’t score in double figures. He scored six against North Texas on Nov. 28.
Georgia: Waiting for NCAA Tournament berth.
Arkansas: Kentucky on Sunday.
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