Photo slideshow: Kentucky’s comeback comes up short at Alabama
After showing its mettle against North Carolina and Louisville the previous two weekends, Kentucky got a three-peat test of its poise under pressure.
Alabama, which came into Saturday’s game searching for a statement victory (as UK did against the Tar Heels two weeks earlier), gave Kentucky more adversity to deal with. More than UK could handle. Barely.
With Kentucky making only two baskets in eight-plus minutes down the stretch, Alabama won 77-75. Barely.
“Our guys poured their hearts out on the floor today,” Alabama Coach Avery Johnson said. “Was it beautiful? No. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. ...
“We didn’t win the (Southeastern Conference) championship (today) ..., but this was huge for our program.”
Not only did Alabama gain a victory that will look good on a NCAA Tournament résumé, the Tide also snapped a 10-game losing streak to Kentucky.
“We knew this was a big game for us from the jump,” Alabama forward Donta Hall said.
While Kentucky was resolute in the face of adversity, John Calipari lamented what he saw as a key reason for this adversity: a poor start to the second half. After withstanding a 20-point barrage in the first half by Tevin Mack, the Cats led 40-38 at the break.
Then Alabama scored the first eight points of the second half. Calipari scrambled to stem the Tide by replacing Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson with Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley at the 18:04 mark.
“The biggest thing was the start of the second half,” Calipari said. “I was just so disappointed. Had to sub two guys. ‘What was your warm-up? What did you do? Why weren’t you ready for a dog fight?’ ...
“So that really, really disappointed me because it means that guys are into their own realm versus how we have to be as a team collectively.”
The Tide (10-3) took the lead for good with 12:11 left. The margin expanded to as much as 72-61 on Hall’s tip-in with 3:12 left.
Kentucky, also now 10-3, battled back. “I think we responded well in the last few minutes of the game,” PJ Washington said. “We’ve just got to do that for 40 minutes. We’ve just got to come out and know the game plan and know where we’re at on both sides of the floor, and just be aggressive.”
With Alabama repeatedly playing on the brink of a turnover, the Cats closed within 72-66 on Washington’s transition dunk. Eighty-one seconds remained.
Twice inside the final 40 seconds, Ashton Hagans made it a one-possession game on driving baskets, this first heavily contested by Hall, who has 199 career blocks.
UK got as close as 76-75 on another transition dunk by Washington’s transition dunk with five seconds remained.
John Petty made one of two free throws with 4.3 seconds left to set the final score.
Kentucky had a chance to win it. But Tyler Herro, who scored a career-high 24 points at Louisville seven days earlier, missed a three-pointer from the top of the key at the buzzer.
“He can knock down a big-time shot,” Hagans said of Herro. “He just happened to miss it.”
Kentucky withstood a first-half shooting spree by Mack. He made six three-pointers, which surpassed his previous career high of five (against Iowa State on Feb. 13, 2016). He had made only five three-pointers in the three most recent games, which surely prompted thoughts of how opponents can have an inspiring performance against Kentucky.
Alabama made its first two three-point shots of the second half (neither by Mack, who scored only two points after the break). The second put the Tide ahead 46-40 with 17:51 left.
Kentucky did not wilt when Petty blocked Travis’ dunk attempt, and then scored in transition.
A span of three-plus minutes without a point put Kentucky behind 59-53 at third television timeout of the second. Washington had just picked up his third foul, joining Travis with three.
It seemed to further test Kentucky’s ability to deal with adversity.
If Herro had made the game’s last shot, Kentucky would have won.
“That would have hurt because we played our hearts out the whole game,” Hall said. “To give it up in the last minute would have hurt.”
Even with the resiliency his team showed, Calipari all but said Herro’s miss served as a form of basketball justice.
“Look,” he said. “We didn’t deserve to win the game. We really didn’t. We would have run out of here saying, ‘Wow, how did we do this?’ But we didn’t have any business winning that game. We just clawed and gave ourselves a chance.”
Texas A&M at No. 13 Kentucky
7 p.m. Tuesday (SEC Network)