NASHVILLE — Quit obsessing about the shaky three-point shooting, Kentucky Coach John Calipari lectured reporters repeatedly this season. UK's fortunes rest with defense and rebounding.
A 73-67 victory over Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Friday showed that when the Cats defend and rebound like they shoot three-pointers, it helps to have John Wall.
"John makes the game a whole lot easier," big man DeMarcus Cousins said of his fellow freshman. "When the ball's in his hands, you know something fantastic is going to happen."
Wall's flair for the fantastic fueled a 21-5 second-half breakout that propelled Kentucky into the SEC Tournament semifinals against Tennessee on Saturday. With everyone in Bridgestone Arena surely knowing what was coming, the SEC Player of the Year drove not once, not twice, but three straight times to scores that snuffed what looked like an upset in the making.
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"John Wall put his team on his back," said Alabama guard Mikhail Torrance, who had the unenviable task of defending Wall and the SEC's leading scorer, Devan Downey, the last two days. "He's fast. I mean, the hype is real."
A slow start and poor rebounding effort put Kentucky behind for all but two of the game's first 26 minutes. Increasingly, Cousins looked to Wall to come to the rescue.
"I was telling John the whole game: Just take over," Cousins said. "Nobody can guard him. And that's what he did."
On the third of his three straight driving layups, Wall scored with his left hand while being bumped. When a foul was called, Wall strutted like a gunfighter who had just shot down his rival.
The three-point play put Kentucky ahead 43-42 with 13:51 left. That was the Cats' first lead since 8-7. A moment later, Eric Bledsoe got into the act with a driving layup that made it 45-42, prompting an Alabama timeout.
The multiple drives were no accident. Necessity moved UK's coaches to order more aggressive moves to the basket.
"Attack the basket, and see what else happens," Perry Stevenson said in describing the call to drive. "Taking jump shots, obviously, wasn't working for us."
Kentucky, a 30-game winner for the first time since 2002-03, made only one of 13 three-point shots. Nine came in a first half during which the Cats played into Alabama's hands.
"The game plan was to make them a jump-shooting team," Torrance said.
Wall, who made five of eight free throws in the final minute to seal the victory, led Kentucky with 23 points. Patrick Patterson added 20. Bledsoe scored 10.
Torrance led Alabama with 20 points. JaMychal Green had 14 and Tony Mitchell 10.
For only the third time against an SEC team, Kentucky trailed at halftime. The two others came at Tennessee in the last game with a noon tip-off and against Georgia in the league opener on Jan. 9.
Alabama led 35-30 at the break, in part because of a 26-16 rebounding advantage. Alabama also worked the high-post screen again and again to create scoring opportunities.
"It looks like teams are trying to do that to us all year," Stevenson said. "I guess since Cancun."
Several of Torrance's 11 first-half points came off drives created by a teammate's screen at the top of the key. "He was going left," Calipari said. "We had worked and said, he's not going to go left. And he went left."
Meanwhile, Darnell Dodson made the Cats' only three, a jumper from the left wing with 1.8 seconds left to set the halftime score.
"Just a horrible first half," Cousins said. "The effort wasn't there. We just played bad.
"We weren't doing our job. At the beginning of the game, we weren't doing what we're good at. That's rebounding and getting the boards."
Cousins, who was held scoreless in the first half and finished with just two field goals, all but promised a better performance on Saturday. "The next game should be better," he said.
Meanwhile, just in case, Wall will be around.
When someone asked whether one player could stay between Wall and the basket, Cousins said the answer would be no "if two are in front of him."
To which, someone said, how about three defenders?
"Maybe," Cousins said.