BOZICH | Kentucky pops Alabama, moves closer to another SEC title
Kentucky did not have Derek Willis but the Wildcats did have Tyler Ulis, and the sophomore point guard moved the Wildcats closer to another SEC title as UK beat Alabama.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – This game, the one Kentucky played against Alabama Tuesday night in Rupp Arena, came equipped with flashing lights for the Wildcats.
No Derek Willis. He sat on the UK bench with his right foot wrapped in a gray protective boot because of the severe ankle injury he suffered last Saturday against Texas A&M.
Questionable Alex Poythress. After missing the last five games with a right knee injury, Poythress did not start against Alabama, a team he punished with 25 points in Tuscaloosa last month.
High-octane motivation fueling Alabama. At ESPN.com, NCAA Tournament bracket master Joe Lunardi listed the Crimson Tide as his 68th and final team in the 2016 field. Beating Kentucky at Kentucky would give Bama a credential that no other team in the Southeastern Conference could play.
Alabama better search for another card.
The Wildcats did not blink, making the Crimson Tide look like they belonged on the bubble for the SEC Tournament with a thunderous, 78-53, victory.
"(Kentucky) had that fire in their eyes," Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. "They were one step faster than us. They jumped about two steps higher than us."
With an 11-4 record in the Southeastern Conference (and 21-7 overall), the Wildcats moved 1 ½ games ahead of South Carolina and Texas A&M in their pursuit of another league title. The Gamecocks (Tennessee) and Aggies (Mississippi State) play home games Wednesday. Louisiana State slipped two games behind the Wildcats by losing at Arkansas.
File this game as a reminder that as long as John Calipari has Tyler Ulis, Kentucky can think grand thoughts.
Johnson, a guy who coached and played in the NBA, saw the way that Ulis was running around, over and through his team and asked for several timeouts. As if that changed anything.
Johnson did not have an answer for Ulis, who finished with 19 points, his 13th consecutive game in double figures. Credit Ulis with 10 assists.
Yes, Johnson believes Ulis can play in the NBA. Ditto for UK coach John Calipari.
"He's a coach's dream," Johnson said. "His double-double speaks volumes. He's a pro. He can play on the professional level. He's probably better than a lot of guys who are there right now."
"I think he's going to be a really good pro and I think he'll have a long career," Calipari said.
Ulis had help from the usual suspects. Jamal Murray scored 23. Poythress (remember him?) contributed 10.
Back to Ulis. Who has had the proper defense for Ulis this season? In Kentucky’s five games prior to Tuesday, Ulis had 51 assists with only 9 turnovers. Not only has Ulis handled the basketball like family jewelry, he's also averaged 18.4 points during that stretch.
"I'm just thinking about winning," Ulis said. "March is about to be here."
As a team Kentucky had four assists, a season low. It was Kentucky's third consecutive game with less than 10 turnovers.
"We only had four turnovers," Calipari said. "Think about that. And we were playing fast."
Nine seconds into the game, Ulis dribbled down the right side, saw Murray flashing along the baseline and led him with a perfect bounce pass.
Layup. Foul. Free throw. Three-point play.
Poythress entered less than three minutes into the game. He made his first two shots as well as his first two free throws.
"I was really proud of him," Calipari said. "He could have stayed out a couple more days. But he knew that his team needed him. He was good. He was good."
The Wildcats also defended. During one first-half stretch that lasted 15 minutes and 20 seconds, Alabama missed 15 of 16 shots. The Crimson Tide don’t have Robert Horry or Antonio McDyess these days. They lack the firepower to overcome issues like that.
The only thing that Kentucky did not do with gusto was make three-point shots. After making at least 10 (and 54 total) in their previous five games, the Wildcats scored just twice from distance against Alabama.
Calipari said he had "no idea" when Willis would return but said that Willis needed to return quickly or risk losing his minutes. Calipari even included a Wally Pipp reference that only long-time baseball fans likely understood about the former Yankees' first baseman who lost his spot to Lou Gehrig because of an injury and never got it back.
The beat goes on for Calipari’s team. On Saturday the Wildcats are bound for Nashville to play Vanderbilt. Lunardi has an opinion on the Commodores, too. He has Kevin Stallings’s team two spots from making the NCAA field. But that was before Vandy beat Florida by 13 in Gainesville Tuesday night.
Add CBS national television cameras and Saturday will have elements of March in Memorial Gymnasium.
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