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March 11, 2006

Final Stats | Photo Gallery

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — South Carolina reached the finals of the Southeastern Conference tournament for just the second time, beating Kentucky 65-61 Saturday behind 18 points from Tarence Kinsey.

Tre Kelley added 13 and Bryce Sheldon had 12 for South Carolina (18-14), which will play either No. 16 Florida or No. 17 LSU for the title Sunday.

The Wildcats (21-12) entered the game with a 34-2 record in tournament semifinal games and were trying to win their 26th tournament crown despite a disappointing regular season.

South Carolina, which won the NIT last season, also struggled during the year. The Gamecocks lost twice to the Wildcats — including in January on a 3-pointer by Kentucky’s Rajon Rondo with 1 second left — and knew they needed to win the tournament in order to get a bid to the NCAA tournament.

Now they’re just one victory away.

South Carolina beat Mississippi State in the first round and dispatched East division winner Tennessee in the quarterfinals. Only one team — South Carolina in 2000 — has ever won the SEC tournament by winning four games.

The Gamecocks’ only trip to final was in 1998 when they lost to — who else? — Kentucky.

In an atmosphere that resembled Rupp Arena with the majority of fans cheering Big Blue, South Carolina was not intimidated.

Trailing 50-45 in the second half, South Carolina went on a 14-3 run that was highlighted by two 3-pointers by Kinsey and one by Sheldon. The Wildcats could get no closer than three the rest of the way.

Joe Crawford, who led Kentucky with 13 points, could have cut it to two but he missed the second of two free throws with 1:56 remaining.

South Carolina pushed it to 63-58 with 33.9 seconds left on Brandon Wallace’s dunk. Kentucky’s Patrick Sparks and Rondo each missed 3s before Wallace added another free throw for the Gamecocks with 18.6 seconds to go. Ravi Moss hit a 3 for Kentucky with 12.2 seconds remaining, but the Wildcats didn’t score again.

Kentucky appeared to have the momentum several times, but South Carolina came back each time. The Wildcats went up by six early in the second half. Then Kelley and Kinsey hit back-to-back 3s for the Gamecocks to tie it at 45, one of seven ties in the half.

The teams were tied twice in the first half after Kentucky led early. But after it was 20-20, Kelley hit a 3 before the shot clock expired with 6:20 to go, and South Carolina was ahead the rest of the half.