Up 17 before halftime, but then trailing on a couple of occasions in the second half, Kentucky rebounded their way to the school’s 31st SEC Tournament title with a 77-72 victory over Tennessee on Sunday afternoon in St. Louis.

In all three of Kentucky’s matchups with Tennessese this season, the Vols won the battle of the backboard. Sunday was no different, with an undersized UT squad winning an 34-32 battle on the boards. But twice in the game’s final five minutes, Kentucky grabbed its own missed shots and converted — first, Wenyen Gabriel and secondly, Sacha Killeya-Jones. The ensuing Kentucky advantage was the difference in the game, as the Wildcats grabbed the lead on Gabriel’s basket and never relinquished it again.

On a quick turnaround of a day, with the NCAA seeding show arriving soon, Kentucky’s focus will almost immediately transfer to the NCAA Big Dance. Will the 2018 edition of the Wildcats have enough spring in their step to pull off a surprising March run?

There are some carryovers from the SEC Tournament that bode well.

First, Kentucky seems pretty clear on who their alpha dog is. Point guard Shai Gilegous-Alexander, who won the SEC Tournament MVP award, showed both elite touch as a scorer and intelligent ball handling decisions. He ended the tournament with 63 points and 20 assists against just five turnovers.

Success in the NCAA Tournament rarely comes without a clearly defined leader to handle tough possessions in close games. Gilegous-Alexander, who before the season was something of an after-thought to Kentucky’s recruiting class, has emerged as UK’s go-to guy, which certainly can’t hurt for next week.

Additionally, Kentucky has gotten some surprising veteran leadership.

Granted, Kentucky’s squad is so incredibly young that the usual slate of juniors and seniors are missing in action, but sophomores Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones both had big SEC Tournaments.

Gabriel had 41 points and 14 rebounds and garnered All-Tournament attention with his 11-for-15 shooting from 3-point range. Killeya-Jones earned his minutes in the absence of freshman Jarred Vanderbilt with tough interior defense. His 9 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots won’t garner many headlines, but his defensive work on Grant Williams late might have been the difference in UK’s closing run Sunday. Big games from players who have been there before is an advantage that Kentucky didn’t look likely to possess; the SEC Tournament drastically changed that story.

Finally, Kentucky’s SEC Tournament journey was most significant in once more showing the young Wildcats how to deal with March adversity.

Leading UT by 17 with less than five minute remaining in the first half, UK then endured a 25-5 UT run which flipped the lead early in the second half. UK had been above 85 percent in win probability on ESPN’s Power Index numbers late in the first half. They slumped below 40 percent during UT’s run. But the Wildcats answered. And that is the biggest takeaway of the SEC Tournament experience.

In March, everybody gets a run. The question is how does a team counter-punch after the run. In Kentucky’s case, it was a healthy dose of Gilgeous-Alexander, some surprisingly sharp defensive word by a couple of greybeards inside, and the simple determination to refuse to be defeated.

After three days in St. Louis, Kentucky looks much more like the kind of team that is more likely to win a couple of NCAA Tournament games than not. For a head coach who has rarely been secretive about his disdain for conference tournaments, John Calipari might well pen a “thank you” note to the SEC for the Wildcats’ 2018 experience in St. Louis. It might have made all the difference in a turn-around from high potential to high performance for another Calipari group of late-charging Wildcats.