ATLANTA — In one of its sharpest performances of the season, Kentucky rolled the Tide 72-58 in Saturday's semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. But because DeAndre Liggins and Doron Lamb rolled ankles in the final 90 seconds of a blowout victory, the game required a question mark rather than an exclamation point as punctuation.
Why were Liggins and Lamb still playing with Kentucky leading by 18 with less than 90 seconds left?
UK's Josh Harrellson, who posted a double-double while squared off against All-SEC big man JaMychal Green of Alabama, acknowledged that question came to mind.
"You always do a little bit as a player," he said. "Like, why isn't he getting other players in?"
Harrellson guessed that UK's desire to avenge a regular-season defeat at Alabama played into the decision. Or maybe Coach John Calipari's hyperintensity got in the way. "I don't know if he notices it at times," Harrellson said. "He's so into the game."
Surely, the realization hit home when Liggins, the team's best perimeter defender, stepped on an Alabama player's foot and crumbled to the floor with 1:16 left. Then seven seconds later, Lamb twisted his left ankle making a cut to free himself from a pressing defense.
Calipari cited Alabama's continuing pressure defense as the reason he left in Liggins and Lamb.
"They didn't stop pressing," he said in response to a question that only got as far as the-game-was-well-in-hand-when-both-DeAndre ... . "You don't know my bench. I play six guys."
Liggins, who participated in the post-game news conference, called his injured left ankle "a minor tweak" and pronounced himself ready to play in the SEC Tournament championship game on Sunday.
Lamb's injury looked more serious. Medical personnel kept reporters at a distance as they applied ice to the ankle and tried to comfort the freshman guard. Later, he moved around the locker room with the assistance of crutches.
"It hurts right now, but I'm playing tomorrow," declared Lamb, who added that doctors wanted to examine the ankle more thoroughly once the team returned to its hotel.
Calipari suggested the ankle injuries, especially Lamb's, might not be as serious as they appeared.
"One thing I've learned with some of these young kids, they have the pain threshold of a fourth-grader," the UK coach said.
Until the injuries, the game unfolded as a one-sided competition between the SEC's best offense and best defense.
Kentucky became only the fourth opponent to make at least 50 percent of its shots against Alabama all season. Calling defense its identity, the Tide had held 20 of its previous 31 opponents to less than 40 percent accuracy.
But Kentucky had no problem scoring from three- and two-point range in improving to 24-8. That the Cats did it without big offensive production from their two leading scorers — freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones — made the performance all the more remarkable.
Lamb led a balanced UK attack with 15 points. Harrellson posted 14 points and 10 rebounds. Liggins had 14 points, Knight 12 and Darius Miller 10.
Alabama (21-11) got 16 points from Tony Mitchell. Green was limited to 12 points.
The formula that beat Mississippi on Friday propelled Kentucky to a 37-21 halftime lead. UK used good defense and scoring from unlikely sources to take control.
Knight and Jones, who combined to make only eight of 26 shots against Ole Miss (0-for-8 from three-point range), came up empty in the first half. The pair missed all nine shots they took.
Yet Kentucky never trailed and pulled steadily away.
Lamb, the leading scorer against Ole Miss, got off to a hot start. He made his first four shots and had 10 points less than six minutes into the game.
UK took its first double-digit lead when Liggins drove by Senario Hillman for a three-point play. His reverse layup needed severe English to curl into the basket. That put UK ahead 26-15 with 5:58 left.
Later, with the shot clock inside three seconds and anxiety oozing from the many UK fans in attendance, Miller swished a long three-pointer to put Kentucky ahead 31-19.
It was that kind of half for UK.
Alabama's 21 points matched its first-half total against Georgia the day before. That was the team's third-lowest first-half total of the season.
The Tide, which beat Georgia in overtime despite trailing by 14 with less than seven minutes left, needed another comeback to win this one.
Alabama had trailed by double-digit points only two other times this season: 30-16 against Oklahoma State and 30-20 at Purdue. The Tide lost both games and never got closer than 12 points in this one.