Kentucky’s coaches weren’t happy with their best players at halftime.
Both Maci Morris and Taylor Murray had rushed shots, made bad passes and played passively in the first few minutes of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Matthew Mitchell voiced his displeasure.
“I was upset with both of them,” the Cats’ coach said of his junior guards and scoring leaders. “They didn’t start with aggressiveness and I didn’t think they started with a lot of mental energy.”
Morris and Murray may not have started with that energy, but they finished with it, leading the Cats to a 71-64 victory over Alabama in the second-round game at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday.
Kentucky (15-16) advances to the tournament quarterfinals where it will face top-seeded Mississippi State, a team the Cats have fallen to twice in the last 18 days, including most recently 85-63 on Sunday.
The Bulldogs finished the regular season a perfect 30-0 and 16-0 in conference play, the first SEC team to go unbeaten in the regular season in 20 years.
On Thursday, Morris led all scorers with 25 points, including 18 in the second half, to help the Cats come back from a double-digit deficit.
“She was just amazing today in the fourth quarter,” Alabama Coach Kristy Curry said of Morris, who had 12 points in the final quarter. “Maci Morris made big shot after big shot.”
Morris did a little bit of everything for Kentucky, including seven rebounds and six assists. So did Murray, who added 18 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals.
When Alabama tied it at 55 with 7:17 to go, Murray made the go-ahead jumper. The Crimson Tide (17-13) never got any closer than two points the rest of the way.
It didn’t look like Kentucky had much of a chance early when the Cats air-balled and bricked their way to an 18-8 deficit after one quarter in which they missed 13 of their first 16 shots and went more than five minutes without a point.
“We all really got together and were like, ‘Time to snap out of it,’” guard Makenzie Cann said.
Things picked up for UK in the second quarter, including a 13-2 run to give the Cats their first lead since the opening minute, 21-20. The Tide missed their first six shots of the quarter.
But Alabama recovered and had a 25-23 lead at halftime.
After those early shooting struggles, UK made 22 of its final 37 shots in the game, including making 66.7 percent in the second half.
But even the first few minutes of the second half were a struggle for Kentucky as Hannah Cook hit three straight three-pointers and Ashley Williams tipped in a shot off a missed free throw to give the Crimson Tide a nine-point lead with 3:31 left in the third quarter.
Cook led Alabama (17-13) with 21 points and Ashley Williams added 15 points and 12 rebounds in the loss.
“We got that eight- or 10-point cushion and took too big of a sigh there in the third,” Curry said. “I’m really disappointed in our tenacity defensively.”
Kentucky, which made 66.7 percent of its shots in the second half, got eight points from Dorie Harrison and seven points and six boards from Alyssa Rice in the victory, their second this season over Alabama and sixth straight.
The Cats played without freshman forward KeKe McKinney, who sat out while working through the concussion protocol. She is questionable for the quarterfinals on Friday.
McKinney, who started 17 of the Cats’ 30 regular-season games, had a career-best 12 points against the Tide in late January. Losing the forward’s energy on both ends of the floor likely contributed to the slow start, Mitchell said.
He added: “Alabama started out with tremendous intensity, so I don’t think you can overlook that as being a non-factor, that was a tough blow for our team to have to absorb and makes the win that much more special.”
Mississippi State vs. Kentucky
What: SEC Tournament quarterfinals
When: 1 p.m. Friday
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Mississippi State 30-0, Kentucky 15-16