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Updated: Sunday, March 16, 2003 5:30 PM EST
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(2) Kentucky 64, (25) Mississippi St 57
Mississippi St. Bulldogs
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NEW ORLEANS (Ticker) -- Kentucky may not find tougher competition in the NCAA Tournament than what it got from Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference tournament.

Keith Bogans scored 22 points as the second-ranked Wildcats won their 23rd straight game and captured their 24th SEC crown by holding on for a 64-57 victory over the 25th-ranked Bulldogs.

Kentucky (29-3) became the first team to cap an unbeaten SEC regular-season slate with a tournament title since its 1951-52 squad. The championship did not come easy against Mississippi State, which was seeking back-to-back crowns for the first time.

"We are really pleased and it is a real honor to win this tournament," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "It was a great challenge for us against a very talented Mississippi State team. Mississippi State really had our work cut out for us. I couldn't be more proud of our young men and how hard they worked today and how they kept their composure and stay poised when things weren't going well for us."

The Bulldogs (21-9) fought valiantly and had a chance to take the lead late when Mario Austin went to the line with 1:51 left and his team trailing, 56-55. But Austin missed both free throws, and Mississippi State never recovered.

Marquis Estill responded with a layup with 1:24 left, and Derrick Zimmerman missed a layup on the other end. Chuck Hayes rebounded for the Wildcats and made a pair from the line for a 60-55 edge with 66 seconds remaining.

"Even with all the missed shots, we still had a chance to take the lead with a minute to go on two free throws," Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury said. "I think fatigue had a little to do with it, and if anybody had a reason to be fatigued, it's Timmy Bowers, Derrick Zimmerman and Mario Austin."

Austin's layup pulled Mississippi State within 60-57 with 44 seconds to play. Kentucky sealed the win by converting 4-of-6 at the line.

Bogans made 6-of-13 shots and also grabbed seven rebounds as he continued a magnificent senior season. He has sacrificed his scoring during the Wildcats' run through the SEC to focus on other areas and netted his highest point total since December 30.

"Coming into this game, we knew it would be a tough game," Bogans said. "They were going to play us down to the end. I think coach told us that the team that was going to win was the team that won the battle. The team that wins the little battles, wins the war. We just wanted to win all the battles and we did that today."

It was the second time that Mississippi State nearly topped Kentucky, having clawing back from a 19-point deficit to get within five in an 70-62 loss on February 23. The Bulldogs missed a number of chances to get closer down the stretch in that one.

Instead, Kentucky was able to cut down the nets at the Superdome, something they hope to repeat here on April 7 in the national championship contest. The Wildcats also will enter the NCAA Tournament as the nation's No. 1 team after Arizona lost in the Pac-10 Conference tournament.

"I think that will mean that we are the top seed in the NCAA Tournament," Smith said. "To come through this league undefeated and being able to win this tournament, I think that qualifies as being considered the best. I think that will help our seeding."

Mississippi State will not have a top seed, but felt its performance may lead to another run to the Superdome.

"This team has an opportunity to get back to New Orleans," Stansbury said. "If we have the chance to get back here and play Kentucky for the national championship, we would love it. Kentucky is the team to beat."

Kentucky took the lead for good with a 13-4 spurt in the second half that featured seven points from Estill. His three-point play with 12:38 to go gave the Wildcats a 48-39 lead.

The lead was still nine after Hayes made a pair from the line for a 54-45 advantage with 7:22 to go. The Bulldogs answered with a 10-2 surge, pulling within a point on reserve Winsome Frazier's 3-pointer with 2:43 to play.

Bowers, who scored a season-high 26 points in Saturday's semifinal victory over Louisiana State, led the Bulldogs with 13 points. Zimmerman suffered through 3-of-13 shooting for 11 points.

"I guess they were the better team today," Zimmerman said. "We didn't make the plays that we needed down the stretch."

But Mississippi State's biggest undoing was the fact that Austin never got untracked. The first team All-SEC forward was bottled up by Estill and Hayes and finished with nine points and six rebounds.

"We did a nice job and my teammates helped me out," Estill said. "When he got the ball, we tried to come down and trap him. It it weren't for my teammates, it probable could have been a long night."

Estill and Hayes each scored 13 points and grabbed nine rebounds, helping Kentucky earn a 34-33 edge on the glass. Cliff Hawkins provided a playmaking spark off the bench with six assists as the Wildcats overcame 19 turnovers.

Kentucky turned in a rough first half for the second straight contest after a 36-36 tie in Saturday's semifinal against Auburn. Mississippi State led by as many as seven points and took a 31-30 lead at intermission.

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