NASHVILLE, Tenn. - In a thrilling Southeastern Conference tournament finale, No. 16 Kentucky needed overtime to defeat No. 17 Texas A&M 82-77 at Bridgestone Arena on Sunday.
"I'm really proud of this basketball team, how much they've improved," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "Individually, guys are becoming the best version of themselves. As a team, they're becoming more efficient on offense. We're still not where we want to be defensively, but this team has gotten better all year."
Sophomore guard Tyler Ulis hit a free throw with 7.1 seconds remaining to seal the victory. It gave Ulis, who was named tournament MVP, a career-best 30 points.
"His heart and his energy that he plays with is just ridiculous. We feed off of it, to be honest with you," Calipari said. "I might be biased. I don't think I am. But he should be one of those guys for Player of the Year, if not the guy," Calipari said. "And because he's 5-9, everybody, it's like, 'How can you do it?' But when you look at his numbers and what he's doing, that's the Player of the Year, those numbers."
It was Ulis who gave Kentucky the early lead in overtime with a 3-pointer to make it 74-71 with 3:43 to play. It was a lead the Wildcats would not relinquish.
Texas A&M guard Danuel House, who scored a career-high 32 points, hit a free throw to trim the lead to 74-72, Kentucky was whistled for a shot-clock violation, but the Aggies (26-8) were unable to convert and instead House fouled Derek Willis on the rebound.
With 2:31 to play, Willis hit one free throw to make it 75-72.
Controversy hit with 2:07 to go. After freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe stole a pass, Aggies freshman Tyler Davis collided with Briscoe, knocking the ball free and out of bounds. No foul was called and, after an official review, the ball was awarded to Texas A&M.
On its possession, House drilled a 3-pointer from the key to tie the game at 75-75 with 1:55 to go.
Kentucky (26-8) responded with a 3-pointer by Willis to lead 78-75 with 1:01 remaining.
The 5-foot-9 Ulis then rebounded a Texas A&M miss and freshman Jamal Murray drilled a 3-pointer to make it 81-75 with 15 seconds left. It only made Murray 3-of-10 on the day from 3-point range.
Aggies senior guard Alex Caruso hit a driving basket to make it 81-77 with 10.2 seconds remaining before Ulis sealed the Wildcats' win.
Kentucky had a chance to win the game in regulation. The Wildcats had the ball with 15.3 seconds remaining, but Ulis' shot hit the front of the rim. It forced the third straight overtime game between the two teams and the fourth in the last five meetings.
The game featured 10 ties and eight lead changes. Kentucky's largest lead was seven, Texas A&M's largest lead was six.
A&M was actually in the lead most of the way before Kentucky finally broke away from the pack inside the final five minutes of regulation.
Leading by two, Ulis hit two free throws to make it 64-60. Then after a Texas A&M miss, Murray drilled a 3-pointer to put Kentucky on top by seven with 3:52 to play. It was the largest lead by either team up to that point.
But just when it appeared Kentucky might have the momentum, Texas A&M charged right back to tie and the battle was on until the final buzzer.
The championship game got off to an explosive start when, on the first play, 7-footer Skal Labissiere lobbed to Murray for a slam dunk that brought 20,000 Kentucky fans inside Bridgestone Arena to a deafening roar. It was the first time Kentucky had run that play all season and set the tone for the battle.
Kentucky managed an 11-7 lead by hitting four of its first five shots, two of them by lobs for dunks. Texas A&M, meanwhile, was content to pound the post with both field goals coming from the paint. They also forced Kentucky into five fouls in the first four minutes.
The back-and-forth affair continued, but in odd fashion. Kentucky scored 18 points on sizzling 7-of-10 shooting, but Texas A&M trailed by only one point thanks to being 7-of-7 from the foul line. The Wildcats were whistled for six fouls.
The first half closed in a near dead heat statistically with Texas A&M leading 38-34. Both teams had 13 field goals, both had 11 defensive rebounds, Kentucky had six assists to Texas A&M's five and seven turnovers to six for the Aggies. The game was tied five times with three lead changes.
"We had our opportunities, and you've got to give Kentucky credit. They made a couple of big shots to win the game," Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. "This is hopefully a great experience for us to get us ready for the NCAA Tournament and do something special in the tournament."
NOTES: Kentucky and Texas A&M shared the regular season title with 13-5 records. Texas A&M won the regular season matchup 79-77 in overtime on Feb. 20 in College Station, Texas. ... The meeting between the Wildcats and Texas A&M for the SEC Tournament title happened for the first time ever. ... Kentucky freshman G Jamal Murray now owns the UK record for freshman scoring 20 points or more in a game with 19. He also holds school and SEC record for freshmen with 110 3-pointers in one season.