Anything can happen in a three-minute game. It was on that slippery slope that Kentucky found itself Saturday. Tiny margin for error, immense room for UK basketball’s second-guess machine to hum.
The Cats led Alabama by two points. Advancement to Sunday’s championship game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament or going home to ponder a surprising defeat enveloped Bridgestone Arena.
As Isaiah Briscoe saw it, Kentucky had Alabama right where it wanted the Tide. He suggested the UK team also found itself in a good spot.
“We need games like that,” Briscoe said after UK won 79-74. “We don’t shy away from games like that. We’d rather have games like this than blowouts just to see who we are.”
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Point guard De’Aaron Fox led the way in making the case that a season full of clutch-or-crash moments had steeled Kentucky. Down the stretch of a grinding game, he scored nine straight points, 12 in the final 5:13, and finished with a career-high 28 points.
“That’s the best I’ve ever seen him play,” Dominique Hawkins said. “He couldn’t be stopped.”
Twice Fox drove to the basket and scored. Once he pulled up and swished a jumper. He also made six of nine free throws.
“I was just able to get in a rhythm,” he said.
Briscoe offered a more colorful description of what Fox did.
“He rose to the occasion and put the team on his back,” UK’s sophomore leader said. “He’s got that dog in him.”
For anyone unfamiliar with canine analogies, Briscoe meant aggressive Doberman, not friendly golden retriever.
Fox understood. “More pit bull or shark,” he said, mixing animal metaphors. “They smell blood. When I was able to get, I think, two layups in a row, then it was, like, let me get the ball again. I’m going to go at them.”
Albeit the hard way, Kentucky improved to 28-5 heading into Sunday’s title game against Arkansas.
The first half featured a pair of revivals, one that brought cheers from the large contingent of UK fans and the other groans.
The poor starts that complicated UK’s last three regular-season games returned. Kentucky fell behind by double digits barely more than six minutes into the game.
Then Monk, the SEC’s leading scorer until making only three of 17 shots in the last two games, returned to form. He kept UK afloat by making his first three shots and finished with 20 points.
Alabama’s early rebounding put Kentucky in catch-up mode. Nine second-chance points propelled the Tide to a 17-7 lead with 13:29 left. By the second television timeout, Alabama had as many offensive rebounds (five) as Kentucky totaled (five).
Surely this would not surprise South Carolina Coach Frank Martin, who credited Alabama’s rebounding as a key to beating his Gamecocks on Friday.
“Alabama deserved to win …,” he said after the game. “They beat us to every loose ball, destroyed us on the glass. … You can’t win the game if you can’t rebound. …Alabama just physically beat us up.”
Kentucky responded to the early onslaught. Alabama had only one offensive rebound in the final 14 minutes of the first half.
Kentucky’s defense also contributed to a turning of the tide. After building the 17-7 lead, Alabama went more than three minutes without a basket, and more than eight with only one.
In that time, Kentucky took its first lead — 18-17 with 9:48 left. Monk’s final basket brought the first-half lead to its zenith at 29-22.
Kentucky started slowly in the second half. The Cats missed their first four shots. Then big plays pushed UK ahead.
Seniors Derek Willis and Hawkins hit three-pointers from the corners, each bringing a huge cheer.
So did a jumper by Fox with the shot clock about to buzz.
When Monk cut backdoor for A floater while being fouled, the three-point play enabled Kentucky to match its largest lead: 49-42 with 12:46 left.
Two fouls on Briscoe in 22 seconds helped Alabama rally. He was called for a flagrant foul with 7:11 left. Riley Norris made both free throws. Then at the 6:49 mark, Briscoe fouled Norris again. Norris made one of two free throws to reduce UK’s lead to 58-57 and set up the final dramatic minutes that UK players said they wanted.
“Close games really bring out who you are,” Fox said. “We’ve been in a ton of close games this year.”
So, who is Kentucky?
“We still don’t even know that,” Fox said. “We’re still trying to jell together. This is still, frankly, a new team.”
Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt/Arkansas winner
1 p.m. Sunday in SEC Tournament championship in Nashville (ESPN)