Kentucky Coach John Calipari reported that the 67-58 victory at Alabama Saturday pleased his team.
“We’ve got so much stuff to work on, but that’s a happy locker room,” Calipari said. “A locker room that cares. That cares about each other.”
For this, Isaiah Briscoe could be considered Dr. Feel Good. With another UK lead shrinking to a dangerously small proportion and a sellout crowd urging further shrinkage, Briscoe literally got in the middle of things.
Kentucky stationed him in the middle of the court when Alabama went to a zone defense. He contributed passes, shots or drives. When the Tide went man-to-man, Briscoe got the best of the matchup.
Briscoe’s 11 points and 11 rebounds — his fourth double-double this season and sixth of his career — served as evidence of getting his job done.
“He’s got a toughness to him,” Calipari said. “And he’s got a fight.”
Briscoe was not surprised to be asked to play a leading role at what’s commonly referred to as winning time.
“Coach trusts me with the ball,” Briscoe said. “He knows late in the game, I’ll take care of the ball. I won’t turn it over or anything like that.”
Of course, Calipari saw areas where Briscoe can improve. A forced shot. “You’ve got three guys on you who are 6-7,” the UK coach said as if speaking to Briscoe. “Why did you shoot?”
In the second half, Briscoe failed to connect on a lob in transition. That made Calipari jab an angry fist in the air and send Briscoe the bench.
Briscoe was philosophical, which might explain how he keeps cool when a game heats up.
“That’s part of being a coach,” he said of the play. “You’re not going to happy with everything.”
‘Very winnable game’
Alabama Coach Avery Johnson suggested that Kentucky is vulnerable, an opinion that’s easy to understand given UK’s three losses and three narrow escapes the last three weeks.
“I thought this was a very winnable game,” Johnson said.
Later, the Alabama coach explained.
“When I was looking at Kentucky …, I was thinking, wow, this is a night to beat them,” he said. “This is a great afternoon to beat them. They were not clicking on all cylinders.”
Johnson was encouraged at halftime, he said, even though UK led 29-20. A dominant team would have already buried Alabama, he said.
“Our first half was just pathetic,” Johnson said. “I don’t know another word. … We were a little fearful in the first half. We gave them too much respect, and they’re a good basketball team.”
Johnson did not suggest Alabama was better than Kentucky. He only meant the Tide did not win a winnable game.
His team had “not much margin for error” against Kentucky, he said. “But you don’t want to beat yourself either.”
Rebounding favors UK
Coming into the game, Alabama led the SEC in rebound margin and ranked 23rd in nation at plus-6.6. The Tide grabbed a season-high 62 rebounds at South Carolina (most by an Alabama team since getting 62 against St. Bonaventure on Dec. 3, 2002).
Alabama had out-rebounded 19 of its 23 opponents, including 10 of 11 SEC opponents.
But Kentucky won the rebounding battle Saturday 41-38. Alabama had only nine offensive rebounds, which marked only the fifth time this season the Tide failed to reach double digits, and the first time since Dec. 2.
For the ninth straight game, Kentucky failed to outscore its opponent from the paint. Each team scored 38 points from the paint.
Thanks to more drives ending at the rim, the Tide got 24 points from the paint in the second half.
In the eight most recent games prior to coming to Alabama, Kentucky’s opponents held a 196-160 advantage in points from the paint.
Alabama’s Braxton Key came into the game as one of 10 freshman leading his team in scoring and rebounding. Key was the fourth such freshman to face Kentucky this season.
The others were Mustapha Heron of Auburn (11 points, three rebounds against UK), T.J. Leaf of UCLA (17 points, 13 rebounds) and Miles Bridges of Michigan State (six points, 12 rebounds).
Key got off to a slow start, but finished with 21 points. He made eight of 13 shots.
Overall, the four distinctive freshmen have made 21 of 47 shots (four of 12 from beyond the arc) against UK.
Feast to famine
Alabama’s bench scored 54 points in the four-overtime victory at South Carolina on Tuesday. Avery Johnson Jr. and Ar’Mond Davis each scored career-highs with 23 and 19 points, respectively.
Against Kentucky, Alabama’s bench made only three of 16 shots (one of eight from three-point range) and scored seven points.
Alabama is in the second year of a strategic shift in student seating.
The student sections used to be behind the basket nearest the visiting bench. The students were moved to two sections behind the sideline opposite the visitors’ bench (from baseline to top of the key).
Why? The students are now visible to the television camera.
For now, the move is being done on an experimental basis. If all goes well, Alabama hopes to move all students to the sections across the sideline from baseline to baseline.
To grasp what Alabama has in mind, think Cameron Crazies at Duke.
Former UK athletics director and basketball Hall of Famer C.M. Newton attended the game. … UK won a seventh straight game against Alabama. … Johnson’s record against ranked teams fell to 5-6 as Alabama coach. … Former UK baseball coach Keith Madison attended the game. He was in the area for a speaking engagement.
Tennessee at No. 15 Kentucky
7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)