Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 73-55 win over Alabama in the quarterfinal round of the SEC Tournament:
1. That was a very good first step
Thursday night, Kentucky Coach John Calipari gave the old cliche that the first game of any tournament is always the hardest game. And he didn’t expect any different with UK’s SEC opener on Friday. After all, Alabama had knocked off the Cats 77-75 back in January. And Avery Johnson’s Tide were a desperate team, in need of an upset over a marquee team (i.e. Kentucky) to impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
Instead, Kentucky clicked on all cylinders from nearly start to finish. The Cats used an early 17-2 run to jump out to a 26-11 lead over the Crimson Tide. When Alabama cut the lead to 33-27 with 2:22 left in the first half, the Cats scored six straight points and led 39-29 at the break. The game’s final 19:12, Alabama was never able to get the Kentucky lead to single digits.
Tyler Herro led the way with 20 points, hitting eight of his 14 shots. PJ Washington scored 10 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked four shots. After being outrebounded 40-32 at Alabama, UK won on the boards 42-32 on Friday. Immanuel Quickley came off the bench to hit all three of his three-point shots on the way to 12 points. Nick Richards scored nine points in 12 minutes in what was a terrific effort from the entire bench.
Kentucky’s defense was superb. Alabama shot 30.3 percent the first half and 30.4 for the game. Tevin Mack, the 6-foot-5 guard who was red hot in Bama’s win in Tuscaloosa, scoring 22 points, did not score a single point. After scoring 21 in the Tide’s SEC win over Ole Miss on Thursday, Mack missed all seven of his shots against UK. He was 0-for-2 from three-point range.
And, oh yeah, did we mention that Reid Travis was back for the Cats?
2. Reid Travis gathered no rust
The graduate transfer from Stanford had been absent since suffering a sprained right knee in UK’s win at Missouri on Feb. 19. In the rehab process, he missed five games and nearly three full weeks. Even when Calipari indicated Thursday that Travis would play against Alabama, that the 6-8 power forward was farther along than the coach imagined, you wondered how rusty Reid would be.
Turned out, any rust was barely noticeable. Travis did sport a bulky knee brace for protection. And Travis did not start. He came in off the bench at the 17:23 mark. Other than that, he was the same old Reid Travis, scoring eight points and grabbing seven rebounds in 23 minutes. As evidence that his knee felt just fine, Travis blocked three shots.
Yes, Kentucky went 4-1 in Travis’ absence. But let’s be real. The Cats are not the same without the physical nature, maturity and intensity the Minnesota native brings to the table. And that one loss was the Tennessee game in Knoxville, the 71-52 loss to the Vols. Calipari repeated Thursday he still thinks that even had Travis played in that game, UK would have lost to Tennessee. Rick Barnes’ team had the revenge angle after being drubbed by the Cats in Lexington. Still, Travis surely would have made some difference on Rocky Top.
It was good to see the likable forward back on the floor. It took a lot of hard work for the senior to get back. Friday was proof his presence makes Kentucky a tougher team — and a tougher team to face.
3. So how did it look to Alabama’s Avery Johnson?
From the Bama coach’s post game press conference:
“They came out and put an extreme amount of pressure on us defensively. We didn’t do a great job of getting in our offense. They turned us over. They blocked shots. I don’t know if I’ve ever been part of a game where a team had nine blocked shots in the first half.
“They were active. We just weren’t efficient on the offensive end. That carried over defensively. We couldn’t get our defense set. We just struggled to score.
“Second half we showed some life. Alex Reese gave us some huge minutes. Donta gave us a little lift in the second half. We cut the lead down a little bit, but just couldn’t get enough stops.
“They have a really long team. Getting Reid Travis back obviously helped some, those eight points and seven rebounds. But our guys fought. Our guys fought. It wasn’t because of a lack of effort. They just did a great job of disrupting us offensively and setting the tone in the first half. It was uphill climbing all night long.”