This Sunday, March 13 will be the 30th anniversary of the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament. There are two reasons why this tournament was significant. First, the SEC had expanded to twelve teams when Arkansas (which had been the Southwest Conference champion from the previous three seasons) and South Carolina (an Independent) joined the SEC, thus dividing it into two divisions. Second, Kentucky (under their coach Rick Pitino) had just come off probation from the previous two seasons. Both Arkansas and Kentucky were among the top four seeds in the SEC Tournament, along with Alabama (which had won the SEC Tournament from the previous three seasons), and LSU (led by Shaquille O’Neal, a.k.a. Shaq).
In the first round, Georgia defeated Ole Miss, Tennessee defeated South Carolina, and Vanderbilt defeated Mississippi State. Auburn did not participate in the SEC Tournament due to being on probation.
In the quarterfinals, Kentucky beat Vanderbilt, Arkansas beat Georgia, and Alabama beat Florida. But the most significant game in the quarterfinals was between LSU and Tennessee. With just over ten minutes left in the second half and LSU with a 73-51 lead, Shaq was going for a dunk when he was pulled from behind by Carlus Groves, thus preventing him from scoring. Shaq then began shoving Groves in retaliation, which led to a bench-clearing brawl among both teams.LSU’s Coach Dale Brown ran out onto the court to confront Groves, and appeared to have taken a swing at him. Brown was then confronted by Tennessee’s coach Wade Houston. Brown was not ejected, but several players from both teams were, including Shaq.
LSU won the game 99-89, but would go on to face Kentucky without Shaq in the semifinal game. As a result, Kentucky would defeat LSU 80-74. In the other semifinal game, Alabama defeated Arkansas 90-89, with a three-pointer by James Robinson in the final seconds of the game. Arkansas had one last try to win the game with 1.5 seconds left, but to avail.
Thus, the SEC Championship game would be Kentucky versus Alabama. It appeared that Alabama might win a fourth straight SEC Tournament, but Kentucky (who had manhandled Alabama earlier in the season) would do so again, 80-54.
In retrospect, Kentucky did have some luck in the SEC Tournament, something that Pitino would acknowledge in his book Full Court Pressure. LSU facing the Wildcats without Shaq led to a Kentucky victory, as did Alabama defeating Arkansas. Otherwise, it might have been Arkansas versus LSU in the championship game.