TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — As Coach John Calipari suggested, guard play loomed large in Kentucky's game at Alabama on Tuesday night.
Alabama got the better of it and beat UK 59-55 to claim sole possession of third place at this early stage of the Southeastern Conference race.
The Tide, 12-6 overall and 4-1 in the SEC, trailed by as much as 12 points late in the first half.
Kentucky, 12-6 and 3-2, scored early and often on drives in the first half. But when the Cats needed such scores down the stretch, they couldn't get them.
Julius Mays (once) and Archie Goodwin came up empty on drives in the final minute as Alabama held on.
Kyle Wiltjer led Kentucky with 14 points, 11 of which came in the first half. Mays added 12.
Trevor Releford led Alabama with 13 points.
Kentucky took the fight to Alabama throughout the first half. The Cats led the final 9:37 of the first half, twice extending the margin to 11 points.
Kentucky rode defense and rebounding, the two staples of winning basketball, to control of the half.
Alabama made only 35.7 percent of its shots.
UK outrebounded Alabama 22-11 in the first half. In stark contrast to some earlier games, the Cats limited Alabama to two offensive rebounds.
On offense, UK repeatedly and effectively worked inside against the Tide. As a result, 20 of UK's 33 points came from the paint. Nerlens Noel's four blocks helped the Cats enjoy a 20-12 first-half advantage in points from the paint.
Noel flirted again with a triple-double. He finished with eight points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks, the latter equaling a career high.
Several UK freshmen reverted. Goodwin, who showed restraint at Auburn on Saturday, missed 10 of 12 shots. Alex Poythress, whom Calipari said improved by 20 to 25 percent at Auburn, fouled out in 15 minutes.
Wiltjer led UK with 11 first-half points. He was among several Cats who drove to the basket for scores.
It was Wiltjer's driving layup that put Kentucky ahead for good in the first half at 14-12 with 9:37 left.
Meanwhile, Kentucky limited Alabama's leading scorers — Releford and Trevor Lacey — to 2-for-9 shooting in the first half.
Releford, who scored all 15 of his points against Texas A&M in the second half, got Alabama back in the game. His floater and three-pointer helped the Tide close within 34-33 by the first television timeout of the second half.
Kentucky did not score a basket in the final 3:34 of the first half. That drought continued through almost the first eight minutes of the second half. During that time, UK missed 10 straight shots.
A block by Noel helped end it. His block of Lacey's driving layup began a fast-break that resulted in a layup by Ryan Harrow with 12:01 left. That put UK ahead 38-35.
The lead didn't last.
Andrew Steele's three-point play in the lane, which included a pump fake that got Noel off his feet, put Bama ahead 41-38.
A post-up by Nick Jacobs (again Noel left his feet) gave the Tide a 43-39 lead with 8:58 left. That marked Kentucky's largest deficit of the night.
After Kentucky closed within 45-44, Lacey drove to the basket. A blocking call on Poythress marked his fifth foul. Referee Doug Shows also called Noel for goal-tending on the play.
Lacey couldn't shoot the free throw. He stayed sprawled on the court near the basket support for several minutes. Jacobs made the free throw, the rare two-man three-point play putting Kentucky behind 48-44 with 4:26 left.
That equaled the largest second-half lead either team enjoyed until the final 30 seconds.
Game highlights from the SEC Digital Network
Earlier, Kentucky coach John Calipari talked about the injury to Willie Cauley-Stein ahead of the Cats win over Auburn. Video by John Clay | Staff
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com