ATLANTA — They say Kentucky is a six-man team.
Friday, it won with four.
That might be a good sign, but to beat Alabama on Saturday, it'll take more.
"The hardest game is the first game," said John Calipari, the Kentucky coach, after his team held off Ole Miss 75-66 in the quarterfinal round of the SEC Tournament in the Georgia Dome.
This first game was so difficult, in fact, that newbies Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, Kentucky's star freshmen, taking a first dip in the collegiate post-season, shot as if the rim were a moving target. Jones missed eight of 11 shots. Knight ended up missing 10 of 15, but at one point was an un-Knight-like 2-for-10 from the floor.
"They didn't just shoot bad," Calipari said. "Brandon's floor game was bad, and Terrence wasn't tough enough."
In the end it didn't matter, because a Formidable Four kept the Big Blue ship afloat. Darius Miller scored 15 points and snatched seven rebounds. Josh Harrellson had nine points and five boards in the first half alone.
DeAndre Liggins played feisty defense on the floor where he helped bother Rebels star Chris Warren into missing five of 20 shots, to all the way off the floor and into the hallway where he and Ole Miss's Reggie Buckner entered into a post-game, all-talk/no-punch confrontation.
Meanwhile, "Doron Lamb," said Calipari, "offensively kept us in the game."
Lamb scored a team-high 19 points, sinking seven of 10 shots and three of four three-pointers. Thirteen of Lamb's points came in the first half.
To be fair, Knight reappeared down the stretch. He made five of six free throws over the final 41 seconds, and he chased down some long, key rebounds. But as for Jones, Calipari said the Portland native wasn't into it all game long.
"We won anyway," Calipari said, which is a good sign, to a point.
That's because now comes Saturday's semifinal against Alabama, which capitalized on a Georgia fold-up and a bit of Mark Fox bad luck — the lead Dawg called a timeout with 0.8 seconds left in regulation just before his Dustin Ware heaved in a shot — to beat the Bulldogs in overtime 65-59.
It was the kind of improbable win that propels a team forward in a tournament.
"They smashed us," Calipari said of the teams' first meeting in Tuscaloosa, way back on Jan. 18.
Actually, Alabama won by two (68-66) that night, but led by 20 (52-32). It started a stretch in which Anthony Grant's hard-nosed team won nine of 10 games to assert its dominance over the SEC West. True, the West was much weaker than the East. But Bama went 4-2 against the East.
Plus, the Tide want their play in this tournament to impress the selection committee of the other tournament, that NCAA one. Alabama entered Friday rated 85th by the RPI. The Georgia win helps. A win over a Kentucky, 11th in the RPI, could be a difference-maker. For the Tide, it could seal the Big Dance deal.
"They're a monster," interjected Calipari.
To be sure, Bama plays a monster defense. Stats fiend Ken Pomeroy ranks Alabama's defense 11th best in the nation.
Friday, Georgia led the Tide 48-34 with 6:58 to play. The Bulldogs scored just five more points the rest of regulation. They then missed seven of nine shots in overtime.
And where Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy lamented that his Rebels didn't have a positive low-post presence to combat the Cats, Alabama has a pair of physical inside players in JaMychal Green and Chris Hines. That prompted a media member to ask Calipari if the Tide is a bad matchup for his team.
"It was a bad matchup down there," replied the coach.
If no more than four show up for the Cats on Saturday, it could be a bad matchup in the Georgia Dome, as well.