BASKETBALL: Vols Take Title in Stride

FAYETTEVILLE — Tennessee's primary objective was to win a Southeastern Conference regular-season championship for the first time since 1967.

But when the fourth-ranked Vols accomplished it Wednesday night, after an 89-86 win at Florida, coach Bruce Pearl said the celebration was "minimal."

"The guys handled it in stride," Pearl said. "We did what we set out to do."

Actually, Pearl said he didn't know the Vols had clinched the title until after the game, when he found out Vanderbilt had come back to beat Mississippi State in overtime earlier Wednesday. The Commodores' dramatic, last-second win ended the possibility of the Bulldogs leaping the Vols into first place or grabbing a share of the crown in the final week of the regular season.

So Pearl said he was proud of his bunch for living up to its preseason expectations. For their minimal celebration as well. But he stressed that winning the crown wasn't lost on anyone even though there was no party.

"They were all about trying to make history this year," he said. "People have asked me to try to put it in perspective. I can't except that it hasn't happened in 41 years and if that doesn't put it in perspective nothing else will."

But the SEC title isn't the only thing Tennessee has in its sights.

The Vols enter the regular season finale against South Carolina vying for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee — which spent one week ranked No. 1 in the country — is battling programs like North Carolina, Memphis, Duke, UCLA for one of the four top spots in the tournament field.

So Pearl said Tennessee didn't have any party plans, yet.

"We still have more work to do," Pearl said.

Foster Goes Off

Vanderbilt forward Shan Foster likely wrapped up the SEC's scoring title — and, possibly, the league's most valuable player honors — with a remarkable performance in his final home game against Mississippi State.

Foster scored a career-high 42 points and made his final nine 3-pointers in Vandy's 86-85 overtime win. He made a 3-pointer in the final minute of regulation to send the game to overtime. Then Foster hit the game-winner with 2.7 seconds remaining.

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, who had tears running down his face afterward, called it a "spectacular" performance and one of the greatest games he's ever been involved in. MSU coach Rick Stansbury said it was an "unbelievable individual effort." Even Foster, who raised his scoring average to 20.6 points a game, thought his night was "crazy."

"He made 9-for-9 once he started making them," Stansbury said. "It wasn't anything within the offense. ... The two he made at the end in regulation were desperation shots from 30, 35 feet. The same way with the one he won the ballgame with. One second on the game clock. Give him credit."

Odom Says Kentucky In

The Wildcats' NCAA Tournament hopes appear to be teetering despite their 11-4 mark in SEC play. But don't mention the idea of Kentucky missing out on the tournament field to South Carolina coach Dave Odom, whose team suffered a 71-63 loss to the Wildcats on Wednesday.

"There is no question in my mind that Kentucky belongs in the field," Odom said. "They have proven themselves over the course of the year. Their problems in late November and December are documented. But to me one of the great criteria for selecting a team is not how you start, but how you finish.

"No team has made greater improvement throughout the course of the year given their situation. Injuries, coaching changes, style of play, nobody has made a greater improvement in the country than the University of Kentucky."

Odom went one step further saying he has "no doubt" they will be in the tournament field. Kentucky is one of four SEC teams — joining Arkansas, Ole Miss and Florida — still hoping to lock up a spot.

Hardened Gators

Florida coach Billy Donovan is hoping the latest lump the baby Gators received — Wednesday's loss to Tennessee — will help in the team-building process. Especially with another important challenge looming.

The Gators, who are squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, close the regular season with a critical game against Kentucky at Rupp Arena.

"The more emotional things that you go through as a group, the more there's a bond created between the group of guys," Donovan said. "I don't feel, unfortunately this year, we've had enough of those type of bonding experiences both good and bad. I think last night, if our guys have a level of maturity, that would be a step towards us becoming better as a team.

"I've said this before to our team you need to get hardened. I think (Wednesday) night is a game that can harden you. If that hardens us and makes us better, then that's the best thing for our team."

But would a win put them in the NCAA Tournament? That's hard to answer.

LSU Streaking

Which SEC team has the conference's longest current win streak?

It's not regular season champion Tennessee, SEC West winning Mississippi State, vastly improved Kentucky or even the potent Commodores.

LSU — which opened SEC play 0-5 — won its four straight game by beating Alabama on Wednesday night. It is the longest streak of the season for the Tigers, who are 5-3 after firing coach John Brady in early February.

"Our team is really developing," said interim coach Butch Pierre, who is hoping LSU's streak can continue at Mississippi State on Saturday. "They're getting better and playing with a lot more confidence. ...

"Our team is really finding itself. I think we'll go down there fighting and hopefully at the end of the game we'll be in a position to win."

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