By LARRY VAUGHT
NASHVILLE — There was a time a Kentucky-Arkansas championship game in the Southeastern Conference Tournament seemed almost a given.
Times have changed but Sunday UK and Arkansas will play for the SEC title. Kentucky outlasted Alabama while Arkansas dominated Vanderbilt the second half to win 76-62 as Vandy missed 23 of 31 3-pointers.
Kentucky whipped Arkansas 97-71 Jan. 7 in Rupp Arena. Point guard De’Aaron Fox led UK with 27 points, six rebounds and six assists. Four teammates also scored in double figures.
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson — never a John Calipari fan — isn’t worried about the edge UK will have in fans Sunday.
“Great atmosphere. We’re looking forward to it. I think our guys will come in and play. It would be played out on the court. That’s the bottom line. We’re used to playing in front of people. As a basketball player at Arkansas, you play in front of people. We’ll have some fans here, too,” Anderson said.
Just not as many as Kentucky will have.
“It’s a neutral site. We got a lot of confidence and we’re not too much worried about what Kentucky is doing. We’re worrying about what we’re doing,” Arkansas’ Jalen Barford said.
“They’re a good team, but so are we. We’re playing really good basketball right now, and we’re ready to face anybody in the country. So it should be a great challenge tomorrow,” Arkansas guard Dusty Hannahs said.
“I feel like we have to come out and play good defense just like we did tonight. If we do that, we’re going to be fine,” Arkansas forward Moses Kingsley said.
Anderson knows the Razorbacks need to slow down Fox. He had a career-high 28 points Saturday.
“He’s a very good basketball player, really quick, shifty. We got to deal with numbers. We can’t do it with one-on-one with the guy. We got to build a wall and make him find somebody else. He’s one of those guys, he’s gets in the lane, as well as Briscoe and Malik is having an outstanding year,” Anderson said.
“Then they got Bam. They got some guys that do more than what we think. I thought the Willis kid has always been a thorn in our side. He plays well against us for some reason.
“It’s a different game, different venue, different time. It’s for the Championship of the SEC Tournament. So, we’re looking forward to the opportunity. I’m sure they’re looking forward to it as well.”
Kentucky has won 10 straight games, but Arkansas has won eight of its last nine to solidify a spot in the NCAA Tournament no matter what happens in the SEC title game.
“We’re playing defense. I think that’s the first and most important thing. We outscoring people early on. But I think now we’re starting to trust each other offensively and that leads to more assists. Trusting the guy that got the hot hand. The trust factor that you’re talking about is not only on offense but on defense,” Anderson said.
“And we’re seeing Moses become that rim protector. We’re seeing Trey Thompson very, very involved in our defense. So, I think it’s just a combination of guys getting comfortable in what we’re doing and trusting one another. Our defense was really good today.”