TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A laugher for Alabama turned serious down the stretch Tuesday night. But a furious Kentucky comeback dissolved into a not-so-funny comedy of errors as Alabama held on to win 68-66.
Kentucky, which got pushed around at Georgia in its other game on the Southeastern Conference road, seemed headed for a similar fate. Alabama took the initiative and built a 20-point lead with less than 16 minutes to go.
"Obviously, they manhandled us," UK Coach John Calipari said. "The last 10 minutes, we got after it and played the aggressive way we have to play."
Helped immensely by Alabama turnovers, the Cats rallied three times within a point of Alabama inside the final four minutes.
The third time came with 1:38 left, when Brandon Knight hit a three-pointer to make it 67-66.
Alabama's propensity for turnovers returned. Freshman point guard Trevor Releford drove aimlessly and stepped on the end line.
After Knight and Senario Hillman exchanged charges, Kentucky seemed poise to take its first lead since the 11-minute mark of the first half.
But "poised" was the wrong word. Knight attempted a handoff to Doron Lamb inside the final 10 seconds. Charvez Davis nudged Lamb aside, deflecting the ball to teammate Ben Eblen, who was then fouled.
Eblen had taken two free throws all season, but he made the first to put Alabama ahead 68-66 with 2.8 seconds left. He missed the second, giving Kentucky one last chance.
"He asked me whether he should make the second free throw," Alabama Coach Anthony Grant said. "I said, yes. I'm not sure he heard me."
Kentucky called time with 2.5 seconds left to plot a chance to win or tie. Alabama did not guard the inbounds pass, but Darius Miller had no Christian Laettner to take the pass. He threw to Terrence Jones, who got off a half-court shot that went wide right.
"We wanted to go to Doron," Calipari said. "The other guy (Jones) said, 'I'll do this myself.' I was going to substitute and put Josh (Harrellson) in. He knows that position better."
To hear Lamb and Jones, the Cats were ill-prepared to win the game. "Terrence was supposed to get the ball," Lamb said.
But Jones said he thought Lamb was the intended target of Miller's inbounds. This confusion put Calipari in a foul mood.
"We're practicing tomorrow," the UK coach said when asked about lessons to learn. "They were going to be off. Tomorrow's going be a brutal day. Brutal. They've got to know there are certain things I will not accept."
Jones led UK (14-4, 2-2 SEC) with 17 points. Lamb added 16, Knight 14 and Miller 12.
Alabama (11-7, 3-1) is now 10-0 at home. The Tide got 18 points from JaMychal Green. That left him one shy of 1,000 for his career.
As in Kentucky's first SEC road game at Georgia, halftime brought a deficit that had to be overcome.
The Cats trailed Alabama 37-30 despite getting off to a good start. They made five of their first 10 shots, including a pair of three-pointers by Lamb, to gain early six-point leads.
Alabama, which had made only three of 21 three-point shots in three SEC games, came roaring back, hitting four in the first half. Alabama's seven three-pointers in the game marked its third-highest total of the season.
"We were helping off some guys" to defend Green, Calipari said. "They were making shots. We knew we had a disadvantage inside."
Davis, who had made two of 13 three-pointers in Alabama's first three SEC games, hit a high-arcing trey over Miller with the shot clock dwindling down to give the Tide their largest first-half lead at 37-29.
The second half could hardly have started worse for Kentucky. As in earlier games, the Cats went to Jones. He dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds on the first possession.
After Green made a free throw, Jones had a heavily contested driving shot in the lane blocked. Jones dived for the loose ball and fed Harrellson standing alone near the basket. Alas, Harrellson's dunk attempt ricocheted off the back of the rim.
When Davis hit another three-pointer, it gave Alabama its first double-digit lead (41-30) and prompted a UK timeout with 18:45 left.
The timeout didn't help.
Lamb missed a shot from the elbow. Miller got the rebound, but Alabama's swarming, collapsing defense resulted in a three-second violation.
At the other end, Green sealed Miller in the post and dunked.
The nothing-going-right half continued for Kentucky as DeAndre Liggins' contested shot in the lane went in and out. Alabama's lead crested at 52-32, meaning the Tide seemingly buried Kentucky under a 15-2 run to start the second half.
Kentucky rallied, closing to within 16 (59-43) when Miller hit a three-pointer. The Cats appeared ready to get closer when Releford missed a driving shot. But the freshman tapped the rebound away from Harrellson, leading to a three-pointer by Andrew Steele.
A Knight three-pointer reduced the deficit to 12 at 59-47 with 9:31 left. When Jones made two free throws after a fast break fueled by another Alabama turnover, the Cats were within nine (59-50). More than eight minutes remained.
In one stretch, Alabama committed turnovers on seven straight possessions.
A putback by Miller and Lamb's floater in the lane reduced Alabama's lead to four at 61-57.
The Tide called time to ponder the final five minutes of a game that left both teams with plenty to digest.