Another day, another breakout game for a Kentucky opponent. And it eventually led to a crushing 77-75 road loss to Alabama, the first time the Cats have lost to the Crimson Tide since 2013.
Alabama forward Tevin Mack, a 29-percent three-point shooter on the year, finished the first half with a ridiculous 20 points on 6-6 shooting from deep. As a team, the Crimson Tide were shooting 34 percent from three going into today’s matchup with the Cats, but somehow managed a clip of 7-11 (64 percent) to close out the first half.
As a result, Kentucky led by just two points at the half, 40-38. And it wouldn’t get any easier for the Wildcats.
Mack’s hot shooting hand would cool off a bit after intermission – he would finish the day with 22 points on 8-12 shooting- but the rest of the Crimson Tide unfortunately found their groove to keep the Wildcats uncomfortable. Kentucky maintained a 51-50 lead with 13:34 remaining in the game, but following a made layup from Alabama’s Kira Lewis Jr., the Cats would fall behind the rest of the way.
Lewis’ bucket sparked an 11-2 run for the Tide, leaving Kentucky without a made field goal between 10:47 to 6:12, a brutal blow to the Wildcats’ chances of a comeback.
After cutting the lead back down to five following a PJ Washington slam, the Wildcats were unable to take advantage, allowing the Tide to score five straight points to push the lead to double-digits. Alabama’s Donta Hall added a follow-in layup with 3:04 remaining to give his team an 11-point lead, giving Alabama what seemed to be an insurmountable lead.
And then a flip switched for the Wildcats on both ends of the floor. Keldon Johnson drilled a three-pointer with 2:20 remaining, followed by a Washington dunk at the 1:21 mark to cut the lead to just six.
Former Kentucky target John Petty, however, responded with a crushing layup on the other end to give the Tide an eight-point lead (74-66) with just 1:01 remaining.
After forcing a turnover on Alabama guard Dazon Ingram, who scored all 11 of his points in the second half, Tyler Herro responded with a three-pointer to cut the lead to five with just 42 ticks remaining on the clock.
Following another Alabama turnover, Ashton Hagans responded with a layup of his own to make it a three point game with 32 seconds left. Kentucky fouled to put Ingram on the line, who drilled both, before Hagans took the ball down the floor to sink another layup to keep the Crimson Tide lead at just three.
With seven seconds left, Hagans forced yet another turnover on Ingram, pushing the ball ahead to Washington for a dunk with just five seconds on the clock, cutting the Alabama lead to just one.
The Tide inbounder got the ball to Petty, who was immediately fouled by Herro on the catch. With a big grin on his face about potentially icing the game, the Crimson Tide sophomore bricked the first and made the second, giving Kentucky one last chance to win the game.
Hagans sprinted down the court, found a wide-open Herro at the top of the key for the win, but the Kentucky sharpshooter couldn’t convert. The Wildcats fell 77-75 to the Crimson Tide to move Kentucky’s record to 10-3 to start the year, handing Calipari just his second loss in the SEC opener since he’s been in Lexington.
Like we saw in the Seton Hall loss four weeks ago, Kentucky missed opportunity after opportunity to overcome a hot shooting performance from the opposition. The Wildcats had the same number of assists (14), had more steals (7-2), fewer turnovers (11-17), out-performed them from the free throw line (82.4 percent to 76.5 percent), and committed fewer personal fouls (15-16). But their flaws elsewhere significantly outweighed those statistical “victories.”
Offensively, the Wildcats finished an abysmal 5-18 from beyond the arc, allowing the Crimson Tide to double their production with ten makes from three (10-23). Immanuel Quickley (eight points, 2-4 shooting from three) was the only Kentucky player to shoot over 33 percent from deep, while three different Tide players shot 50 percent or higher from three.
As a team, the Wildcats shot just 13-35 in the second half, an abysmal 37 percent from field.
Outrebounding Kentucky 40-32 to go with four blocks on the day, Alabama found a way to minimize UK’s success on the interior on both ends of the floor. Coming in as the No. 3 offensive rebounding team in the nation, the Cats managed just six offensive rebounds, compared to seven for the Tide.
And the individual performances weren’t any better.
With 12 points (6-13 shooting) and five rebounds, Reid Travis’ numbers don’t look too bad, but it was easily one of his worst games of the season. On several crucial points down the stretch, the poised veteran leadership we’re used to seeing out of the graduate transfer just wasn’t there. He had a crushing travel called on him in transition late in the game, got his shot blocked during a big run for the Cats, and took an unnecessary three-point jumper when his team needed easy buckets. Typically known as Kentucky’s most consistent player, Travis finished the second half with three turnovers, four missed shots, and just one make, with a final +/- total of -8.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari said what we all thought: it was a rough outing for the veteran big man. But he’s not worried about it in the long run.
“He reverted,” Calipari said. “He tried to gather himself on every catch. I told him, ‘All the work we put in, you got in this game and didn’t trust it.’ But he’ll be fine. He’s the least of our worries.”
Beyond Travis, Tyler Herro and PJ Washington shot a combined 8-22, including a combined 2-9 from three. Washington finished with a team-high 15 points, along with seven rebounds, one assist, and one steal, but he was relatively invisible for the majority of the first half. He struggled immensely on defense, as well.
Keldon Johnson finished with 13 points (5-10 shooting), seven rebounds, four assists, and three steals, one of the best all-around performers for the Cats all day. But unlike the last few games, the star forward didn’t assert himself into the offense and take the game over like he’s capable of. When the team needed a bucket during their drought early in the second half, Johnson didn’t force the issue and be that guy.
Ashton Hagans, who once again proved to be a superstar on defense with some incredible plays down the stretch, finished with a career-high 12 points (5-10 shooting), three rebounds, six assists, and three steals. But with several missed gimmes at the rim, the Kentucky point guard wasn’t able to spread the lead and/or cut the deficit at several massive moments when the Cats needed momentum on their side.
When push came to shove, the Crimson Tide truly wanted it more than the Wildcats. Alabama head coach Avery Johnson said as much during his postgame press conference.
“Our guys poured our hearts out on the floor today,” he said. “Was it beautiful at all times? No. Was it perfect? Absolutely not, especially after we got a ten point lead. Do we have things to work on? Yes. But fans, supporters, this is a huge win for us.”
For an Alabama basketball program that hasn’t beaten Kentucky in six years, Johnson said it was a must-win to get the monkey off their back.
“We talk about it a lot behind the scenes, we’ll let you in on it too, but we needed to beat Kentucky,” he said. “We needed to win the game, we talked about finishing with one more point than Kentucky. No excuses, we’re at home. Yes, some of our fans are out in California (for the College Football Playoff title game), but for the ones who showed up today, we can’t thank you enough.”
Instead of crushing the hearts of Alabama fans in a crucial game for their program, Kentucky let a team that may not even make the tournament have their one shining moment.
For a Wildcat squad looking to play at the Yum! Center in Louisville for the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, this is not a good loss.