LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) — They won the game. That's what matters for now. The University of Kentucky did not lose on Senior Night, did not drop a third straight game for the first time under John Calipari, did not push "send" on the story of this season.
That's not the lead I thought I'd be writing on this team's home finale at the beginning of the season. If you'd told me that UK would be looking at a 55-48 win over an Alabama team that is 12-18 and winless on the road in the Southeastern Conference as some kind of bright spot, as a source of relief, I'd have told you something must have gone horribly wrong.
This isn't the team anyone thought it was. It could be, maybe, someday. But it isn't right now.
What it is, according to John Calipari, is a team trying to "get back." From where, no one is sure.
"We're still not all the way back," Calipari said after the game. "This is a young team. They're a little rattled. Lost an overtime game and went to South Carolina and lost."
He also said, "At the end of the day, you and I know, we just had to win this game. Didn't matter if it was a half-court bank shot."
That's a long way from the kind of phrasing Calipari was using before the season. Doesn't matter. In the words of the winner of the Oscar for best song, let it go.
It didn't take a half-court bank shot to beat Alabama. What it did take was a brief flurry of second-half defense.
The Wildcats finished the first half down 28-25. In five halves of basketball, plus an overtime, it had scored exactly 10 fast-break points. That's a lot of slow, ponderous, torturous offense.
At the start of the second half, the Cats came out pressing, they got into passing lanes, they turned up their defensive intensity and they forced Alabama turnovers — five of them, in fact, and scored 12 easy points off those in the opening 10 minutes of the second half.
For a team starving for any kind of offensive help it could get, those points were all the spark the Wildcats needed. They didn't catch fire, but they were able to warm up at least enough to put away a severely overmatched Alabama team.
I listened after the game for the subject of those turnovers to come up, for any discussion of defensive intensity, either from Calipari, or from the gathered media throng that accompanies the Wildcats.
The word "defense" came up one time. Calipari said Willie Cauley-Stein did some good things defensively.
There was a lot of talk about missed shots and offensive frustration, more discussion about Calipari's missed press conference and the pressure these players face at UK, but precious little about one thing this team can do to change things up — and the one thing that I believe gave them an offensive spark in the second half.
Down four in the first minute of the second half, UK scored in transition off a Cauley-Stein block, then Julius Randle got a dunk off an Aaron Harrison steal, and Harrison made a three off an Alabama turnover. Seven points, all keyed by defense, and the Wildcats went from down four to up three in a span of 1:14.
That little stretch was enough to take the lid off the basket for UK, if only briefly. The Wildcats went on to build a nine-point lead just over seven minutes into the half, and could've stretched that more — but they settled back into their passive defense, instead of pressing the issue.
They started missing shots. Alabama chipped away, and trailed by only one with 5:11 to play, but lacked enough offensive firepower to threaten late. Julius Randle was UK's only double-figure scorer, with 12 points, 11 rebounds. James Young went 1-for-11 from the field, but made a big three late, and hit three big free throws. The Wildcats were 16-49 from the field. Alabama was 19 of 50. If not for making 18 of 24 free-throws (Alabama was 7 of 11 from the line), they probably don't win.
"Their offensive rebounding and free throws were the difference," Alabama coach Anthony Grant said.
For a team that struggles offensively — and UK shot just 32.7 percent from the field on Tuesday — the best way to generate offense is through defense, through the fast break. The Wildcats played good defense against an offensively challenged Alabama team, but they didn't play great pressure defense. They forced only eight turnovers.
In their past three games, including an overtime,UK has scored only 14 fast-break points.
That's not nearly enough for a team with finishers like UK has. But Calipari will take it, for now. It put the losing in the past tense — though a trip to No. 1-ranked Florida Saturday doesn't afford them much of a break.
In the periods where UK has thrived this season, it has made lesser teams play faster than they wanted to play, and it has done that at the defensive end. Florida, however, is a team that doesn't mind playing fast. It's a tall order.
"Tough for these kids what we've been through. But they hung tough and did it," Calipari said. "Even now you got a couple guys that you could see were still not through the dregs of what we went through. But we win, we move on, we see what happens from here."