To be sure, this Kentucky basketball team’s play over the last three weeks has been alarming, but you really didn’t have to go this far.
Three times Friday night the fire alarms went off at the Hotel Capstone, where the Cats were staying directly across the street from Coleman Coliseum before its game with Alabama at noon CT on Saturday.
The first alarm went off around 3 a.m., causing everyone in the place to evacuate.
Well, everyone except one.
“Let me give you guys a secret and don’t tell anybody this,” UK Coach John Calipari said. “I never moved ... I put the pillow over my head.”
The alarms went off again at 5:30 a.m. and a third time at 7 a.m., though the hotel didn’t clear the premises on those occasions.
To continue the metaphor, you’d say the real wake-up call came a few hours later when the Cats, struggling to return to what made this Kentucky basketball team great again, managed to grind out a 67-58 victory over the Crimson Tide.
Before you ring that victory bell too loud, however, know that Alabama was awful the first half — “I thought we gave them too much respect,” Tide Coach Avery Johnson said — and really awful the entire game from the free-throw line, making just nine of 26.
“Some of them weren’t even close,” Johnson said.
And not to be too negative about a Southeastern Conference road win, but after letting a 25-point lead dwindle to seven in last Tuesday’s win over visiting and hapless LSU, the Cats saw an 18-point lead with 10:16 remaining be carved all the way to six with 2:39 left and again with 1:40 remaining before Derek Willis rose up and nailed a clutch three-pointer to pretty much put a bow on the package.
Give credit to Isaiah Briscoe, who scored 11 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and scored seven consecutive points in a stretch when the Tide was finally starting to roll offensively.
And give credit to the Cats for this: The team that was one continuous fast-break highlight reel early in the season won a conference game in which it had to rise and grind.
“We’re really not that kind of team,” Calipari said. “But if you can’t grind it out some games, your season is going to end earlier than you want.”
That’s been the fear since UK’s locomotive got thrown off the tracks, starting with that surprise 82-80 loss at Tennessee on Jan. 24. After the Cats allowed a bad LSU team to hang around Tuesday, Calipari put his club through a grueling, three-hour practice, then made alternating threats about both shortening the rotation and benching players if they refused to do what was asked, mainly rebound and defend.
Alabama is not a good offensive team. The Tide entered Saturday ranked 157th in offensive efficiency by Ken Pomeroy. It played to that level in the first half, shooting 32 percent, missing eight of 11 free throws and scoring all of 20 points.
“We played on our heels,” Johnson lamented.
Kentucky surely had a little something to do with that. The focused Cats appeared less likely to give up easy drives and more likely to actually dive on the floor for a loose ball. But you have to wonder what happened (again) in the second half, when Alabama shot 57.7 percent. From the 7:16 mark to the 1:03 mark Saturday, Alabama scored at least one point on 11 straight possessions.
“We’re going to continue working on defense,” Briscoe promised.
Now back to that eventful Friday night. So why did Calipari, the coach for heaven’s sakes, ignore that hotel fire alarm. Well, he said he was staying on the third floor and knew a jump from the third floor wasn’t going to kill him.
“If I smelled smoke, I’d have jumped out the window and broke both legs,” he said. “I would have told my wife, ‘It’s not all bad, I get to take the rest of the season off.’”
No one thinks he really wants to do that.
Tennessee at No. 15 Kentucky
7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)
Kentucky men’s basketball 2016-17
Stephen F Austin