OK, so Monday night out in sunny Santa Clara, Calif., the Alabama Crimson Tide will be playing in the College Football Playoff national championship against the Clemson Tigers.
But the Super Bowl, that was played Saturday afternoon back home in Tuscaloosa.
You know, the college basketball Super Bowl. SEC basketball’s version of the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl that, according to John Calipari, always involves Kentucky and whomever happens to be playing Kentucky. (“We’re everybody’s Super Bowl Bowl.”) Especially when the Cats come to town — even if that town is a bit distracted by about what is about to happen in another sport, and for good reason.
“I can’t thank our fans enough,” Alabama Coach Avery Johnson said afterward.
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He also said this: “We needed to beat Kentucky.”
And so the Crimson Tide did, for the first time in Johnson’s four seasons as coach, hanging on for dear life and a breakthrough 77-75 victory over the 13th-ranked Wildcats that despite the football game and the students being gone from campus for holiday break, drew an announced crowd of 12,424 inside a loud Coleman Coliseum.
“Where did these people come from?” wondered Calipari.
With all that factored in, this was not a bad loss for Kentucky. Let’s get that out of the way first. This was not just the Cats’ first foray into conference play, but their first road game in conference play. Conference road games are different. They just are. Duke in Indianapolis, Seton Hall in New York, North Carolina in Chicago, even Louisville in Louisville, those games are not the same as Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
So for UK’s younger players, Saturday was a lesson on the rules of the road. A field trip, if you will. One of Calipari’s pet phrases — one day, there will be a book; a thick book — is “you win or you learn.” This trip to Tuscaloosa, against a pretty good Alabama team, was a learning experience.
Lesson one: You must guard the three-point shot. After Seton Hall’s slew of falling, off-balance, ridiculous threes in the Pirates’ overtime win over UK at Madison Square Garden last month, the Cats had done a better job of defending the three-point arc. Saturday, they experienced a relapse named Tevin Mack.
The Texas transfer didn’t just score 20 points in the first half, the Tide forward was a perfect six of six from three-point range. And at least a couple of those appeared to be launched from somewhere close to Birmingham. “He wakes up shooting and goes to bed shooting,” said teammate Donta Hall.
Lesson two: The first few minutes of the second half matter. Despite Mack’s 20 points, the Cats led 40-38 at halftime. Three minutes into the second period, the Tide had turned the tide and led 46-40. “I was really disappointed the way we started the second half,” Calipari said.
Lesson three: You can’t miss 14 of your first 19 second-half shots and win. Not on the road. By the time the Cats finally located the basket, they were down 61-53 with 7:55 left. And the Alabama crowd was enjoying the experience.
Give Kentucky credit for a no-quit comeback, though Alabama’s shaky ball-handling surely had something to do with that. The Tide’s 11-point lead with 3:12 remaining was a single point with five seconds left. Had Nick Saban been in attendance, headsets would have been smashed left and right.
“We didn’t deserve to win that game,” Calipari concluded.
No disagreement here. The story of the glass told all. The Cats are among the best rebounding teams in the nation. (“Them guys bang in the post now,” said Alabama’s Hall.) In Saturday’s second half, however, UK was outrebounded 24-15.
So lose and learn. That’s the message the Cats should carry back for a pair of home games next week against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. Then it’s a return to the road — first Georgia; then Auburn — where that “everybody’s Super Bowl” thing might just be trite enough to be true.