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.
The Tide (10-3) took the lead for good with 12:11 left. The margin expanded to as much as 72-61 on Donta Hall’s tip-in with 3:12 left.
But Kentucky, also now 10-3, battled. With Alabama repeatedly playing on the brink of a turnover, the Cats closed within 72-66 on PJ 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 Donta Hall, Alabama’s leading shot-blocker.
UK got as close as 76-75 when Washington’s transition dunk made Alabama pay for a turnover. 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.
Each team had five double-digit scorers. Tevin Mack led Alabama with 22 points. Washington led UK with 15.
Kentucky came into this Southeastern Conference opener on an uptick.
“We’re getting better,” John Calipari said on a SEC coaches’ teleconference on Thursday. “It takes time. The guys are all dialed in. And I like where we are.”
Alabama came into the matchup feeling its game at — of all places — Stephen F. Austin last Sunday served as good preparation.
It was the first time a team from a Power Five conference had played at SFA in 10 years. Promotions included a white-out and a Fan Fest, the latter shut down streets around the arena for two-plus hours.
Kentucky withstood a shooting spree by Mack to lead 40-38 at halftime.
Mack 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.
UK came into the game seemingly intent on establishing superiority in the post and around the basket. Reid Travis scored eight of UK’s first 18 points.
Neither team had many “stops” in the early going. The teams combined to make 15 of their first 20 shots.
That had to change, and it did. Alabama went more than five minutes without a point.
After Reid hit a 15-footer to put Kentucky ahead 27-22, the Cats scored on only one of their next seven possessions. This prompted a timeout with 5:39 left. No surprise when UK went to Travis in the post on its next possession.
Mack’s sixth three-pointer put Alabama ahead 35-31 with 3:17 left. He did not score again the rest of the half.
Alabama made its first two three-point shots of the second half (neither by Mack). The second put the Tide ahead 46-40 with 17:51 left.
Kentucky did not wilt even when Petty blocked Travis’ dunk attempt, and then Petty 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 set up a test of Kentucky’s ability to deal with adversity. The hole got deeper right after the UK fans reacted to an Alabama turnover with a Go-Big-Blue chant.
Freshman Kira Lewis responded with five straight points: a three-pointer and two free throws after being fouled in transition.
That put Kentucky behind 68-58 with 4:57 left.