NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s Lamonte’ Turner picked a perfect time to snap out of his shooting slump.
Turner sank a go-ahead 3-pointer with 30 seconds left as No. 8 Tennessee rallied to beat No. 4 Kentucky 82-78 in a Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal thriller Saturday. Before making that shot, Turner had gone 8 of 52 from 3-point range over his last 10 games and 1 of 19 over his last five contests.
“Big moments like that, man, I thrive on those moments,” Turner said. “I always believe in myself. My teammates always believe in me. When it left my hands, I knew it was good.”
The third-seeded Volunteers (29-4) trailed by eight with less than three minutes left before rallying to advance to a championship matchup Sunday with No. 22 Auburn, the tournament’s fifth seed. Auburn beat Florida 65-62 in the other semifinal.
One way or another, this tournament will have an unfamiliar champion. Tennessee hasn’t won this event since 1979 and Auburn earned its lone SEC Tournament crown in 1985. The Vols also are chasing their first NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed in program history.
Kentucky’s chances for a fifth straight SEC Tournament title vanished when Tennessee closed the game on an 18-6 run.
“With an eight-point lead, we should win that game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They said, ‘You’re not winning the game. We’re not giving up. We’re not stopping.’ “
Tennessee took a 75-74 lead on a Grant Williams 3-pointer from in front of the Vols’ bench with 1:31 left. Kentucky (27-6) went back in front with 1:06 remaining when PJ Washington delivered a putback of his own miss.
Admiral Schofield missed a 3-pointer on Tennessee’s next possession, but Williams got the rebound and called timeout with 38.5 seconds left. The Vols worked the ball to Turner, who buried a 3-point attempt from behind the top of the key.
Although Turner had been struggling up to that point, he has a reputation for delivering clutch shots and made a go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute of a victory at Kentucky last season.
“He’s Lamonte’ Turner — he has ice in his veins,” Williams said. “We have no doubt in our minds that he’s going to be able to take and make that shot no matter if he’s shooting zero for 60 the next four weeks. I don’t want that to happen, but we have faith he’ll knock them down. We know what type of shooter he is.”
After Washington missed a shot and a follow attempt with about 15 seconds left, Tennessee’s Jordan Bone went 4 of 4 from the free-throw line in the last 11 seconds to finish off Kentucky.
“We still have a bigger tournament, and it’s more important,” said PJ Washington, who led Kentucky with 16 points. “We’ve got to come out, be focused, be ready to play, whoever we play.”
Schofield scored 21 points, Williams had 20 and Bone added 18 for Tennessee. Keldon Johnson had 15 points, Reid Travis had 11 and Ashton Hagans and Tyler Herro added 10 each for Kentucky. Hagans also had 12 assists.
The third Kentucky-Tennessee meeting of the season took place roughly a three-hour drive from each campus, and about two-thirds of the Bridgestone Arena crowd appeared to be cheering for Kentucky as “Go Big Blue” chants competed with the sounds of “Rocky Top.” That environment created a much closer game after the home team won easily in the two regular-season matchups.
“Honestly, that was one of the funnest games I ever played in, back and forth, two teams competing at a high level,” Schofield said. “It was fun for me, and I know it was fun for my teammates.”
Tennessee: Turner’s huge 3-pointer is good news for Tennessee, which needed him to pull out of his slump before the NCAA Tournament. The Vols are going to need Kyle Alexander to stay out of foul trouble if they want to make a deep postseason run. The senior forward fouled out of Saturday’s game with 10:55 remaining. Alexander had just two points and three rebounds in 16 minutes. That followed a 16-point, nine-rebound performance in a quarterfinal victory over Mississippi State.
Kentucky: The Wildcats discovered what they can expect from Travis amid the rigors of an NCAA Tournament run after seeing the way he performed on back-to-back days. In his first action since Feb. 19, Travis returned from a sprained right knee in a reserve role when Kentucky beat Alabama in an SEC quarterfinal Friday. He started Saturday and played 28 minutes.
The Tennessee-Auburn championship game has plenty of interesting subplots.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl coached Tennessee to NCAA Tournament appearances in each of his six seasons on the job before getting fired in 2011 amid an NCAA investigation that put the program on probation. Auburn and Tennessee shared the SEC regular-season title last year.
Tennessee’s hopes of winning back-to-back SEC regular-season championships for the first time in school history vanished a week ago when the Vols lost 84-80 at Auburn.
Tennessee faces Auburn in Sunday’s championship game.
Kentucky learns the date, location and opponent for its first NCAA Tournament game.
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