Date story published: Sunday, February 18, 2007
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- What Coach Tubby Smith called Kentucky's "M.O." led to another KO yesterday.
For the third straight game, the Cats fell behind by a double-digit margin before rallying tantalizingly close to victory. Alas, once more the train ran over Polly Purebread because Dudley Do-Wrong (aka UK) still can't figure out how to untie that final rope.
"Very depressing," freshman Jodie Meeks said after Alabama beat Kentucky 72-61. "This is the third game in a row. We could have won each of the three. But we didn't execute."
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Familiarity produced the wrong kind of rarity. The Cats lost a third straight Southeastern Conference game for only the second time since Eddie Sutton's program imploded in 1988-89. Kentucky, which also made a three-stop visit to Skid Row last February, fell to 18-8 overall, 7-5 in the SEC and 0-5 against ranked teams.
The wonder was how easily all the new negativity could have been whisked away.
As if by habit, Kentucky never led. That extended Kentucky's length of time without a lead to 66:38 (the last UK lead -- 21-19 at Tennessee on Tuesday -- went away with 6:38 left in the first half in Knoxville).
On the plus side, UK did not intend to fall behind Alabama 12-2 inside the first seven minutes and by as much as 14 points twice in the first half.
"We had a big emphasis to start the game the right way," Ramel Bradley said. "And we didn't. We didn't move the ball. We didn't screen."
Randolph Morris twice turned the ball over in UK's six possessions. That started UK toward a scoreless first 4:29. Of all people, freshman Ramon Harris scored the Cats' first basket (a fast-break dunk with 15:21 left) and UK promptly went another five minutes without scoring.
UK Coach Tubby Smith's cure for the slow starts was for a team that's "a little more alert and a lot more aggressive.
"I didn't think we were very aggressive at both ends of the court, offensively or defensively, to start the game."
After its lowest-scoring first half of the season (previous low 24 points at North Carolina), Kentucky rallied. The Cats used full-court pressure to shake Alabama. The Tide committed only six turnovers in the first 25 minutes, then coughed up the ball five times in a span of seven trips downcourt.
Kentucky burst through that opening and twice closed to within two points. The second time, produced by a Meeks three-point play, left UK trailing 48-46 with 7:28 left.
Plenty of time ... for a thrilling victory to elude Kentucky.
Freshman Justin Tubbs, who had made only two three-pointers since Jan. 6, hit a crushing trey to give Alabama a 53-46 lead with 6:31 left.
Less than a minute later, Morris and Bradley got in each other's way on a defensive rebound, freeing Alabama's Richard Hendrix to grab the loose ball and dunk.
Alabama, which improved to 19-7 overall and 6-6 in the SEC, re-established an 11-point lead with less than four minutes left. But despite rushing a few shots, Kentucky charged again, closing within four, 65-61, on Joe Crawford's three-pointer from the corner at the 1:12 mark. Crawford finished with 17.
After Ronald Steele hit two free throws to make the lead 67-61, Kentucky squandered its last best chance in truly bizarre fashion.
Bradley seemed to keep the pressure on Alabama by hitting a contested leaner with 54 seconds left. But with the ball descending toward the bottom of the net, Morris tipped it back up and out of the rim. Offensive goaltending nullified a sure two points.
"I wasn't trying to tip it," Morris said. "I just hit the net inadvertently and it just happened to pop back out."
After a sigh, Bradley said. "Wow. That was my thought on it."
Alabama, which leads the SEC in free-throw shooting, made 19 of its final 23 free throws (11 of 14 in the final 7:11) to clinch the victory.
By then, Kentucky was reduced to quick shots. Bradley, who struggled offensively (4-for-15 overall, 1-for-10 from three-point range), took UK's final four shots and six in the final two minutes.
"We have a tendency to dig ourselves a hole, then battle our way back, then not play with the intelligence we need to play with in clutch situations," Smith said. "We need to think a little better on the court."