Nobody on the court was smaller than sophomore Tyler Ulis on Sunday. Nobody came up bigger for the Wildcats, either.
Kentucky's star point guard was phenomenal against Texas A&M in the final of the SEC tournament, registering a career-high 30 points—to go along with five assists, three steals and three rebounds—to lead the Wildcats to an 82-77 overtime victory. That made him the first Kentucky player to notch 30 points and five assists in a game since Tayshaun Prince did so in 2001 against Iowa, per ESPN Stats & Info.
The SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year justifiably added the SEC tournament Player of the Year award to his collection, per Kentucky Athletics:
You're not going to believe this. Tyler Ulis is the SEC Tournament MVP. pic.twitter.com/5plQZPOa9p— Kentucky Athletics (@UKAthletics) March 13, 2016
"He's the player of the year in the country," Kentucky head coach John Calipari said after the game on the ESPN broadcast. "Everybody knows it but is afraid to say it because he's 5'9"."
Ulis spoiled an epic performance from Texas A&M's Danuel House, who scored 32 points and added six rebounds and two blocks. Jalen Jones (15 points, nine rebounds) and Tyler Davis (eight points, nine rebounds, two blocks) also came up big for the Aggies.
Jamal Murray (17 points, five rebounds, two steals) and Isaiah Briscoe (10 points, six assists, five rebounds, two steals) played major roles in Kentucky's victory as well. But this was Ulis' show.
Texas A&M went into the half leading 38-34 after a closely contested 20 minutes that didn't see either team lead by more than six points. House (10 points, four rebounds) and Jones (nine points, two assists) led the way for the Aggies, while Ulis (11 points, one assist, one steal) was excellent for Kentucky.
The Wildcats struggled to get their leading scorer, Murray, involved offensively early on. He managed just six first-half points and didn't score in the final seven minutes of the frame.
However, Kentucky dominated in the paint, as ESPN Stats & Info showed:
Texas A&M leads Kentucky 38-34 at half.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 13, 2016
Kentucky has 22 points in the paint, nearly as many as it had in their regular-season meeting (24).
The second half picked up where the first left off, with both teams trading leads and executing consistently on offense.
House was incredibly effective, scoring 10 points within the first nine minutes of the second half. Meanwhile, Ulis continued to make every big play for Kentucky, as Kyle Tucker of the Courier-Journal noted:
Tyler Damn Ulis. Goodness. Yet another three to beat the shot clock, push UK ahead 55-53. Making every big play.— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) March 13, 2016
Tyler Ulis might not be National Player of the Year, but he is the most valuable dude to his team in America. That shot? Seriously?— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) March 13, 2016
The Wildcats looked like they were finally going to seize control late in the game after swapping leads with the Aggies. Texas A&M led 58-57 with 7:57 remaining, but Kentucky promptly went on a 10-2 run, led by four points from Ulis and a Murray three-pointer to give the Wildcats a 67-60 lead with 4:02 on the clock.
The Aggies weren't so quickly dismissed, however, scoring four straight points of their own behind the efforts of Davis, who pulled down an offensive rebound, scored on the putback and blocked a shot on the other end that led to a Jones dunk on the fast break.
Kentucky extended the lead to 71-66 after Alex Poythress made two free throws with 1:43 remaining, but a House three-pointer and an Admon Gilder steal gave the Aggies the chance to tie or take the lead with 50 seconds on the clock. House missed a contested layup on that possession, though, and Davis was called for a foul going for the rebound.
Poythress missed the one-and-one free throw and House tied the game on the other end of the court with an off-balance floater in the lane. House's performance even had ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit buzzing:
Kentucky was set up for the final possession, inbounding with 15.3 seconds remaining. But Ulis couldn't make a fallback jumper at the buzzer, and the game went to overtime, the third straight time dating back to last season that these two teams needed overtime to determine the outcome.
Houston Kress of Fox Sports Knoxville thought Kentucky's approach on the final shot left much to be desired:
Calipari called a timeout to set up a Ulis iso drive with no screens and/or movement? Really?— Houston Kress (@VolRumorMill) March 13, 2016
The two teams went back and forth in the overtime much like they did throughout regulation, and the score was tied 75 apiece with 1:56 remaining. But Derrick Willis and Murray made three-pointers on consecutive possessions, giving the team a six-point lead with 18 seconds remaining and sealing the SEC title for the Wildcats.
Both teams are headed to the NCAA tournament now, with Kentucky likely locking up a No. 3 seed in March Madness. Few backcourts, if any, are better than the combination of Ulis and Murray, making Kentucky a dangerous team.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M's rebounding and balance will make it a sleeper pick to advance far in the tournament.
After the contest, Calipari continued to praise Ulis.
"He's coaching these guys. He made every big play," the coach said of his point guard, per Tucker.
Ulis knew he had had to come up big on Sunday.
But Calipari also extended his praise to the entire team.
"I'm proud of this team and what they've been able to accomplish," he said, per Kentucky Basketball.
And Poythress feels Kentucky is peaking at the right moment.
"We're playing the best basketball we've played," he told Tucker. "Everybody is clicking."
That's certainly bad news for the rest of the field at the NCAA tournament. Kentucky may have lost a slew of starters and key performers to last year's NBA draft, but the Wildcats look like a team on a mission to prove this squad can accomplish just as much as last year's unit.
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