After responding to what one player called Ole Miss’s attempt to “out-punk us,” Alabama players sounded ready for another challenge. This one was voiced by Kentucky point guard Ashton Hagans, who said that he and his teammates wanted to play Alabama on Friday in a quarterfinal game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
“Is that what he said?” center Donta Hall said after Alabama rallied to beat Ole Miss 62-57 in a second-round game Thursday night. “Well, we’re ready for them, too. It is what it is. We’re going to battle just like they’re going to battle. We’re going to come out with our hard hat ready to play.”
Alabama players did not seem angered by UK presumably wanting to avenge a 77-75 loss in Tuscaloosa on the opening weekend of the SEC regular season.
“That’s cool,” said Tevin Mack, who led Alabama with 21 points. “I’ve got nothing to say about that. But that’s cool.”
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Guard John Petty, whose only basket of the game gave Alabama the lead for good with 66 seconds left, echoed Mack’s sentiment.
“I mean, challenge accepted,” Petty said. “We’re always going to accept the challenge we’ve been given.”
Kira Lewis Jr., a freshman point guard like Hagans, saw nothing wrong with Hagans saying that Kentucky wanted to play Alabama.
“I know Ashton,” he said. “I know he’s a competitor. Just how they wanted us, we want them. So it’s going to be a good game.”
Alabama (18-14) is playing for an NCAA Tournament bid. Several players said beating Kentucky twice would be a significant boost in that effort.
“That’s been huge,” Mack said. “I’m pretty sure that would be huge for us. It’d probably secure that for us if we beat them a second time.”
Mack led Alabama to its regular-season victory over Kentucky. He scored 20 of his 22 points in the second half. He also made a career-high six three-pointers.
“I was just aggressive,” he said. “Playing my game. I wasn’t really passive or anything like that. I’ve got to come out and do the same thing tomorrow.”
After that game, UK Coach John Calipari said that Mack developed “beer muscles” after making a few shots. This description puzzled Mack.
“I don’t know what that is,” he said. “For real. What’s that?”
When told that Calipari probably meant that making shots intoxicated Mack with the belief that he couldn’t miss.
Mack accepted that explanation. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “That’s me all the time, though. Most of the time. I’ve just got to come out there with the same effort and energy. My teammates have got to do the same thing as well. So I think we’ll be able to put up a good fight.”
Alabama boiled down the victory over Ole Miss to a matter of effort and fight.
Ole Miss, which also sought to avenge a regular-season loss to Alabama (74-53 in January), led 38-24 at halftime. It was the third-largest halftime deficit for Alabama this season. The Tide trailed 48-28 at Auburn on Feb. 2 and 43-28 at LSU on Jan. 8. Alabama lost both games
The track record did not suggest a come-from-behind victory by Alabama. The Tide came to the SEC Tournament with a 1-10 record in games it trailed at halftime.
“I just asked the team, ‘Can we please try to turn the ball over five times or less in the second half,’” Alabama Coach Avery Johnson said of his halftime plan. “‘Just please. Because we look like we don’t practice.’ And we actually practice.”
Alabama turned the ball over 10 times in the first half, but only six in the second.
Mack got the comeback rolling with a pair of three-pointers early in the second half.
“They were tougher than us, actually,” Lewis said of the Rebels in the first half. “Getting more 50/50 balls. . . . In the second half, we just came in and we were like, ‘They’re not going to out-punk us.’”
The Alabama coach stressed rebounding. To ensure more rebounding, he went to a bigger lineup that included Mack as a 6-foot-6, 225-pound shooting guard.
Alabama out-rebounded UK 40-32 in January.
No. 4 Kentucky vs. Alabama
What: SEC Tournament quarterfinals
When: 7 p.m. EDT
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 26-5 (15-3 SEC), Alabama 18-14 (9-10)
Series: Kentucky leads 112-38
Last meeting: Alabama won 77-75 on Jan. 5, 2019, at Tuscaloosa, Ala.