Facing the possibility of the program’s first five-game losing streak since 1989-90 (and just the third since 1925), Kentucky circled its metaphorical wagons.
Before tipoff, courtside hosts Ravi Moss and Maria Montgomery put into words what was at stake Saturday in Rupp Arena.
“As much of a must-win game as there is,” Moss told the crowd.
Montgomery agreed, saying, “It’s getting serious now.”
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If that wasn’t clear enough, Moss labeled Kentucky-Alabama “a do-or-die-game. As big as it gets.”
As one streak hung in the balance, another continued. Once more, a Kentucky game came down to execution, courage and poise in the final few minutes.
This time Kentucky was the steadier, readier team. UK won 81-71 by making plays down the stretch while Alabama’s freshmen faltered.
Jarred Vanderbilt cited the value of trial and error in the form of games decided at what Coach John Calipari likes to call winning time.
“First couple of games, we were rattled,” he said. “We’re starting to figure it out (with) late-game situations. What to go to. What works. Lock in defensively. Communication. Stuff like that.”
UK, which improved to 18-9 overall and 7-7 in the Southeastern Conference, led 69-67 entering the final three-plus minutes. The scary feeling of déjà Blue faded as the Cats got points in 13 of their final 17 possessions, and they would have made it 15 of 17 had more free throws been made. UK ended up making 10 of its final 12 free-throw attempts.
PJ Washington gave Kentucky a post presence, without which a team is a “fraud,” as Calipari likes to point out. He scored eight of his 10 second-half points in the final seven-plus minutes. That included a pair of post-up baskets, the first an and-one.
While noting Washington’s four turnovers in the first half, Calipari added, “When the game got in the balance, PJ made every play he was supposed to make. We need him to play 40 minutes that way, or 30, whatever minutes he’s playing.
“But even if he’s playing poorly, I have all the faith in the world to go to him and that’s what we did. We went at him.”
UK players noticed Washington had a mismatch and exploited it, Vanderbilt said. “We got some good results,” he said.
You could say Kentucky rebounded from four straight losses. The Cats dominated the backboards 44-27. That included 20 offensive rebounds, 13 of which came in the second half.
“They just outworked us on the boards,” said Donta Hall, who led the Tide with six rebounds. “They were the hungrier team.”
Alabama Coach Avery Johnson also mentioned hunger. Then immediately amended himself. “Desperate,” he said.
Alabama, which had two baskets and four turnovers in the final five-plus minutes, fell to 17-10 overall and 8-6 in the SEC.
Despite a scoreless first half from leading-scorer Kevin Knox, Kentucky led 39-34 at intermission. Two fouls inside the first four minutes contributed to Knox playing only six minutes and taking only shot in the first half.
Any doubts about Kentucky’s resilience in the face of four straight losses seemed to disappear with about five minutes left in the first half. Alabama looked like the confused freshman team when John Petty’s pass went through Collin Sexton.
UK got three offensive rebounds on the next possession with the result being a foul sending Hamidou Diallo to the line. UK fans cheered the hustle.
Kentucky led the final 6:42 of the half, in part by making its final eight free throws.
The second half began like the first: a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander pass resulted in points for Richards, this time two free throws. That gave UK its largest lead yet, 41-34.
Led by Hall’s board work, Alabama rallied. He scored six straight points around the basket, the first of which put the Tide ahead 48-47 with 13:56 left. That marked UK’s first deficit since the 6:42 mark of the first half.
Knox’s first basket of the game came 37 seconds later. He hit a three-pointer from the left corner to put UK in front 50-48.
Knox came alive, scoring nine points in less than five minutes. But Alabama would not go away, setting up another UK victory or defeat decided in yet another five-minute game.
Kentucky at Arkansas
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)