TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Freshmen Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins may have surprised themselves with solid contributions to Kentucky's 61-51 victory at Alabama on Saturday.
UK Coach Billy Gillispie suggested as much in noting their best productivity of the season at the defensive end.
"Like most incoming freshmen, I'm sure they averaged 24 points or 32 points in high school," Gillispie said. "(Freshmen think) it's going to be easy. I'll come into the SEC and I'll get 15 points my first year and 22 points my second year and go on and get drafted.
"It's not quite that easy."
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Miller and Liggins have had well-documented struggles this season.
In this game, it was their opponents who struggled. Liggins contributed to the team that held Alabama point guard Mikhail Torrance scoreless.
Miller stepped in for Ramon Harris and made a big impact despite not scoring. His seven rebounds were his most since getting 10 against Miami on Dec. 6. His three blocks were a career high. His two steals equaled a career high, and he had two assists.
"I thought he did a real good job," teammate Jodie Meeks said of Miller. "He defended well. He rebounded well. He gave us a great spark in the second half."
Gillispie noted the importance of learning to excel, first, on the defensive end.
"It's what's going to keep you on the floor all the time," he said. "Playing the defense we need, the offense is going to come because they'll be so happy about the way they're defending and rebounding."
Gillispie held out Meeks as an example of a player who learned to turn on his scoring through defense.
"I didn't think he was a great defensive player last year," the UK coach said of Meeks. "He's turned himself into some type of defender."
By Meeks' timetable, Miller was due.
"You know, he's a freshman," Meeks told reporters. "But it's the second half of his freshman year. You start playing like a sophomore."
Gillispie saluted the wise play of Miller and Liggins, especially with it coming on the road against a highly athletic opponent.
"Following the scouting report to a T," Gillispie said. "It makes you very proud."
Stevenson steps up
Once more, Patrick Patterson's absence coincided with a big performance by Perry Stevenson.
Stevenson, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds, saw a link.
"Oh yeah," he said when asked if Patterson's foul trouble fueled his sense of responsibility. "I can speak for the rest of the team. None of us likes to be under-estimated. ... I hate that feeling."
Stevenson also equaled a career high with four assists.
"The best he's ever been at Kentucky in the time I've been there," Gillispie said. "He's had some numbers in games that were probably a little better. But his compadre was sitting on the bench in foul trouble.
"When he was needed most, he played the best."
Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried lamented his team missing the opportunity presented by Patterson's foul trouble.
Patterson departed with four fouls at the 16:25 mark of the second half. Alabama led 30-26. When he returned with 6:18 left, the score was tied at 45. "It was a little frustrating," Gottfried said of failing to build a lead in that span. "I thought we could. But, we couldn't generate enough points."
UK improved to 5-0 as the only unbeaten team in the Southeastern Conference.
The significance of that position?
"Nothing until it's all said and done," Stevenson said. "We say it over and over, we take it one game at a time. The wins are piling up."
UK was on the verge of making The Associated Press Top 25 last week. Does two more victories this week, which improved the record to 16-4, merit a place in this week's poll?
"I think so," Stevenson said. "But we're just happy to play the game of basketball (and) playing for the state of Kentucky. That just makes us feel wonderful."
UK held a league opponent to less than 30-percent shooting accuracy for the first time since Jan. 16, 2007 (South Carolina shot 26.8 percent). ... Meeks missed two free throws in a game for the first time since making 11 of 13 against Kansas State on Nov. 28.