NASHVILLE — The conversation in the elevator was brief but summed up the mood succinctly in and around the Bridgestone Center in downtown Nashville.
"Kentucky is back on top and all is right with the world," a UK fan said.
With its dominating 74-45 win over No. 3 seed Tennessee on Saturday afternoon, Kentucky advanced to the finals of the SEC tournament for the first time since 2005.
The second-ranked Wildcats (31-2), who last won the title in 2004, will play Mississippi State (23-10) at 1 p.m. today. The Bulldogs defeated No. 2 seed Vanderbilt 62-52.
Entering the tournament, Kentucky first-year coach John Calipari said he wasn't concerned about winning it all, just improving his team's NCAA seeding. But on Saturday, Calipari's thoughts had changed.
"When I see a building full of blue fans who paid a lot of money for the tickets — $500, $1,000, probably people that could not afford to pay $500 or $1,000 — they're taking their vacation in Nashville, Tenn., to watch our team play," Calipari said. "Well, then, you kind of feel as a coach you owe it to them to give it your best.
"They tell me 180,000 fans came to Nashville. Kentucky fans. And only 17,000 could get in the building. There were people selling tickets — they would sell their ticket to anybody except a Kentucky fan. That's why they had a sign. Are you a Kentucky fan? I'm not selling you the tickets because we're not having a building full of Kentucky people."
Apparently, that strategy didn't work because the arena was nearly 80 percent Kentucky fans. And they weren't disappointed.
No. 15 Tennessee (25-8) trailed 32-19 at halftime but managed to pull within six with 9:27 remaining in the game. But Kentucky outscored the Vols 29-6 to end the game.
DeMarcus Cousins had 19 points and 15 rebounds for Kentucky. Eric Bledsoe had 17 points on 5-of-8 3-point shooting, and John Wall added 14.
Bledsoe said winning the tournament title would mean a lot to a team featuring five freshmen.
"We're trying to do something special. So far we're doing it, so we're going to keep on playing," Bledsoe said.
MISS. ST. 62, NO. 20 VANDY 52: Mississippi State's run is eerily similar to last season when the Bulldogs entered the SEC tournament in Tampa on the NCAA bubble and won it all. MSU led by 15 early in the second half, but Vanderbilt (24-8) cut the score to 51-48 with a 13-2 run. But trailing 53-49 with 4:56 remaining, MSU went on an 8-0 run to take a 61-49 lead and seal the win.
Dee Bost, Phil Turner and Jarvis Varnado had 11 points each for Mississippi State, which won four straight games in the 2009 tournament for its first crown in seven seasons. The Bulldogs received a first-round bye this time after sharing the SEC West crown with Mississippi.
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.