UK Men's Basketball

UK hangs on, just not to the ball

Not every game is going to be a masterpiece suitable for framing.

Not every game is going to be a 30-point blowout.

Not every game is going to fill up the highlight reel.

But if third-ranked Kentucky had been playing a more accomplished basketball team Tuesday night at Rupp Arena, the Cats could have been suitable for an upset.

Oh, the Cats survived, their going-through-the-motions performance enough to beat Anthony Grant's scrappy but limited Alabama Crimson Tide 66-55 before another full house at the Civic Center.

The night was as up-and-down as John Wall's stat line. The freshman scored 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, but he also had just two assists and six turnovers.

On the night, Kentucky shot 45.8 percent overall, made just three of 16 three-pointers and was just 19-for-31 at the foul line. That's not good.

More than anything, however, three words that John Calipari keeps repeating kept repeating as you watched the game unfold.

Value the basketball.

Kentucky ended up committing 16 turnovers, but it seemed like more.

"That's the way Anthony's team plays," said Calipari afterward.

True, many of Kentucky's turnovers were of the forced variety. In his first year at Tuscaloosa, Grant has coaxed Alabama into making opponents play ugly. The Tide can defend. They know how to get in passing lanes, disrupt dribbles. Kentucky turned the basketball over 11 times in the first half on the way to 31-24 lead.

Talk about your slow starts. Kentucky's first five minutes consisted of little but miscues and missed shots. It seemed a carryover from warm-ups, when the team appeared more intent on wowing the crowd with dunks than concentrating on the game.

Unfortunately for the visitors, Bama can't shoot. Alabama made just 35.5 percent of its first-half field goal attempts. Therefore, Grant's team couldn't capitalize on its good defense/Kentucky's poor offense. If Kentucky often struggled to hold on to the basketball, Alabama struggled to get the ball in the basket. Alabama shot 33.3 percent for the game.

Wall turned it over five times, without an assist, before the first half was through.

"There were slipperies on the ball, or something," said Calipari.

But Wall did score 11 points in the first 20 minutes, and he had a couple of nice drives that resulted in and-ones.

Second half, more of the same. The Cats led by 14, then all of a sudden Alabama was within seven. Again, Wall might make an unfocused turnover, i.e. a backcourt walk, then make a smooth floater in the lane, and all was forgiven.

"We've just got to get a couple of guys playing better," Calipari said. "There was effort, but there wasn't great play. Top to bottom."

In some ways, it should have been expected. The Cats were coming off an 81-55 crunching of LSU in Cajun Country on Saturday. That, plus Villanova's loss to Georgetown, inched the Cats up to No. 3 in the polls. And everyone is talking about this coming Saturday.

Tennessee and ESPN's GameDay come to Rupp. The Saturday morning crowd has already sold out the arena to watch the TV show. The Vols were blitzed by Vandy 90-71 in Nashville. Bruce Pearl's club will either be sulking after that spanking, or ready for redemption. Either way, Pearl will wear his orange coat.

When March comes, Kentucky is going to meet an NCAA Tournament that can force turnovers on the defensive end and score on the offensive end. Then those three little words — value the basketball — become very big.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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