With his team having flirted with a five-game losing streak, Kentucky Coach John Calipari came to Alabama with a concern more basic that making shots, getting stops or even simply winning.
“We were just worried about just playing hard,” he said. “Showing energy. Having the world look at us and say, ‘these guys care. These guys can be good defenders.’
“But they’ve got to be engaged in it. It’s got to be about defense first. And it was.”
Kentucky’s 67-58 victory at Alabama on Saturday was a mixed bag. Certainly it was an advertisement for longer, more exhausting practices.
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The apparent benefit of this week’s three-hour practice devoted to defense appeared here. Six blocks equaled the second most since Dec. 29 and showed that the Cats were capable of providing help defense.
“They were just playing terrific defense,” Alabama freshman Dazon Ingram said of the Cats. Six words not spoken in a long while.
Alas, Kentucky did not completely shed its inconsistency. A perplexing pattern of an opponent shooting well in the second half continued. The same Alabama team that made only 32 percent of its first-half shots made 15 of 26 (57.7 percent) in the second half.
“In the first half, I thought our defense was great,” said Isaiah Briscoe, who posted a double-double (11 points and 11 rebounds) while being a literal solid center to a wobbly wheel of a UK team down the stretch. “… In the second half, we weren’t in the game.”
Despite leading by 18 points with less than 10 minutes left, UK had to make clutch plays to win. Surely flashbacks of the near collapse against lowly LSU on Tuesday crossed a few minds in the Big Blue Nation.
Briscoe rode to the rescue. With the lead down to 55-49, he drove to a basket against Riley Norris to ease the tension. It was his third straight basket.
Kentucky improved to 20-5 overall and 10-2 in the Southeastern Conference. The latter kept UK tied for first place with Florida. South Carolina could keep a share of first place by winning at Mississippi State on Saturday night.
Calipari’s assessment fit a game that seemed to portray his freshman-dependent team’s up-and-down nature. The defensive intensity was much improved, especially in the first half. But the offensive execution remained a work in progress.
“This is like, OK, you really zero in on one thing, what happens?” Calipari said. “Like two other things fall apart.”
Calipari spoke of benching point guard De’Aaron Fox early because he held the ball too long. Briscoe forced a few shots. UK’s 2 fouls, perhaps a byproduct of the increased intensity on defense, were too many.
Alabama fell to 14-10 overall and 7-5 in the SEC. Braxton Key led the Tide with a game-high 21 points.
Earlier in the week, Calipari had decried poor defense (especially the lack of help on drives) and a quick-shot offense that ignored time-and-score considerations.
“You can’t be on defense 70 percent of the time,” Calipari said. “Which means you can’t just come down and shoot a quick contested shot.”
Kentucky’s intent to play defense and play prudently on offense was evident from the start. Alabama did not get a shot to the rim in the first two minutes.
All those opponents lately driving all the way to the basket for uncontested scores? Twice before the first television timeout, Bam Adebayo and Wenyen Gabriel came over on help defense and blocked shots.
The four blocks before the third TV time were more than UK got against Florida (three) and LSU (two), and as many as the Cats had in seven of the most recent 14 games.
Kentucky held Alabama to one basket in the final 6:06 of the first half. In that time, it established its first double-digit lead (29-19) and took a 29-20 advantage into intermission.
But a warning sign appeared midway through the second half. On the fast break, Briscoe tried a risky lob that failed to connect. Judging by Calipari jabbing his right fist, it was one of those “cute” plays that he abhors.
Briscoe went to the bench. Dominique Hawkins replaced him.
After Kentucky twice extended its lead to 18 points, a telling moment occurred. UK had committed two straight turnovers, then threw an errant pass on the break that Mychal Mulder retrieved.
Briscoe held the ball rather than attack. This tranquil interlude seemed just what Calipari had been wanting.
The good feeling didn’t last. Alabama kept charging despite continuing to miss free throws.
Perhaps unnerved by the chaotic nature of the game, Kentucky gave its fans an unwanted flashback to the bumbling eight minutes against LSU on Tuesday. In that time, a 25-point UK lead dwindled to six points in the final seconds.
Alabama reduced an 18-point deficit with 10 minutes left to 50-43 with 4:46 left.
That set up the will-to-win finish.
Afterward, Calipari pondered the time he has to make Kentucky ready for the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve got a month,” he said. “But what you’re talking about is probably a good seven, eight, nine, 10 practice days left.”
Possible, he said, but the clock is ticking louder.
“We’re somewhere in the middle of what you saw today,” Calipari said. “That means we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Tennessee at No. 15 Kentucky
7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)