CRAWFORD | Kentucky regresses late, but flexes defense to beat A - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Kentucky regresses late, but flexes defense to beat Alabama 67-58

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The University of Kentucky basketball team had its fire alarm go off three times at the hotel the night before facing Alabama in a 1 p.m. game on CBS Saturday.

But the real alarms have been going off in practice for the past three weeks. Coach John Calipari has been heating the Wildcats up about their defensive effort, and the results were on display against Alabama, which struggled for most of Saturday’s 67-58 loss to run anything it wanted to run.

Now, the Crimson Tide have the No. 12-ranked offensive efficiency in the SEC and struggle with turnovers, but Kentucky did the things it needed to do against them — came up with turnovers, blocked some shots, and limited straight-line drives to the rim until center Bam Adebayo fouled out late in the game.

Alabama scored on just 28 of 73 possessions and turned it over on one out of every five.

But in other ways, it was the same old story for Kentucky. The Wildcats led by 18 with 10 minutes to play in the game, and looked to have matters well in hand.

Instead, the Wildcats let Alabama hang around, and found themselves up only six with 1:30 left in the game. And that’s against a team that made only 9 of 26 free throws, a team that will not be playing in the NCAA Tournament unless it mounts an upset run in the SEC Tournament.

“This is like, OK, you really zero in on one thing and what happens? Like, two other things fall apart,” Calipari told reporters after the game. “. . .  The game was a little ugly because we tried to defend for the first time in three weeks. . . . It was OK. We still aren’t taking charges. We’ve got guys who won’t throw their body in there. Listen, we were worried about just playing hard, showing energy, having the world look at us and say, ‘These guys care. These guys can be good defensively.’ But they have to be engaged in it. It’s got to be about defense first, and it was. Then we stunk offensively.”

Kentucky is at its best when it is getting some steals, forcing some turnovers and blocking a few shots. Every live-ball turnover it gets, just about, translates to points.

The Wildcats established their defense early, and held Alabama to just 8-25 shooting in the first half. The Tide finished the half with just 20 points, but Kentucky had just 29. And Kentucky committed 12 first-half fouls.

In the second half, Kentucky extended its lead to 18 with 15:18 left, then again with 10:13 left. But both times, it couldn’t put the finishing touches on a blowout win.

After Alabama cut its deficit seven with 4:49 left, the Wildcats got seven straight points from Isaiah Briscoe to keep the Tide from getting closer.

Alabama pulled within six with 1:42 left and Calipari took a timeout, drawing up a play for Derrick Willis, who nailed a three from the top right with 1:18 left to clinch it for the Wildcats.

“I ran that last play for Derek Willis, but you have to know I ran it three minutes before, and because he didn’t want the ball he tried to screen,” Calipari said. “That’s not a play for him to screen. And I called him over, ‘Why did you do that? You didn’t want to shoot the ball did you?’ So then I ran it again. We’re running it again. ‘De’Aaron throw him the ball.’ And the kid made a 3. I’ve got to give him credit. That’s growing, especially me calling him out a little bit saying, look, man, you can’t – Kenny Payne’s saying this, ‘If you don’t have confidence Coach shouldn’t play you at all. Shouldn’t play you. If you’re going in the game without confidence then he shouldn’t play you and I’ll tell him to take you out.’”

The defense, however, remains a work in progress. Once Adebayo fouled out with 6:06 left, there was little left to deter Alabama from getting to the rim. Beginning with its next shot, the Crimson Tide made seven in a row, and missed only one more shot the rest of the game.

Had Alabama not missed eight first-half free throws and nine in the second, this one could’ve been much closer throughout.

Still, Kentucky got 17 points from Malik Monk, 14 points and seven rebounds from Adebayo in 28 minutes of play and 11 points and 11 rebounds from Briscoe to pull out the win on the road.

And Calipari liked the offensive patience his team showed against an Alabama team that hangs its hat on defense — the nation’s 20th ranked defensive efficiency coming into the game. And that patience, according to Calipari, helps his team defensively.

“See, we’re still, we’re not a total grind-it-out team, but I’d rather be that than a one-pass, no-pass, shot team,” Calipari said. “I’d rather be what we are. We are something in the middle of what you saw today. That means we got a lot of work to do. But if you can’t grind it out some games, your season’s going to end earlier than you want. You’ve got to be able to grind. You’ve got to be able to execute in the half-court after seven, eight passes, get it to nine seconds on the clock, make a play. You’ve got to at times. Maybe 10, 15 times in a really good game. We were throwing no passes, one pass, shot. We were on defense 70 percent of the time. Today, if you looked it, it was probably 50-50 we were on defense and offense, which is what it should be.”

Now Kentucky returns to Rupp Arena for its first SEC rematch of the season, against Tennessee, which beat the Wildcats 82-80 in Knoxville on Jan. 24.

“That was a happy locker room,” Calipari said. “It’s a locker room that cares, that cares about each other. But I’ve got to do the technical stuff, I’ve just got to keep coaching them and I think I got away from what I needed to do for three weeks. We slipped and let’s see if I can get these guys on the right path. We’re playing Tennessee coming up who beat our brains in up there. Now we’ve got to try to see what we can do at home.”

KENTUCKY NO. 3 SEED IN NCAA PROJECTIONS

The Wildcats were the No. 12-ranked overall team in the NCAA’s first-ever advance release of its NCAA Tournament seed list, making it a No. 3 seed in the East Region (where Louisville is the No. 2) if the bracket were selected today.

Calipari said he was just fine with that position.

“I said, ‘Put in marker. Permanent marker.’ Because, you know, there are times in the season I would say maybe we deserve it,” he said. “There are times in the season when we were a little bit better than that, but there have been times where I say, ‘Really?’ That’s never happened to me before, where they’ve given us a seed better than we should have.”

So does it deserve that No. 3 seed?

“Yeah, I would say. Because we’re a talented team and if we start defending and we’ll get our offense together and teams that we’ve beaten already,” he said. “We’ve struggled some at times, but let me say this to all of you: Every team in the country is having issues right now. We just want to be better at dealing with ours than they are dealing with theirs. Every team. Tell me the team and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, well, let me say this. They just got this thing and that thing.’ Everybody has issues. You’ve got to deal with those issues better than everybody else. But, you know, I like the transparency. I know there’s some coaches that didn’t like it. ‘Ah, puts more pressure on us.’ No, no, no, no. There’s transparency now. If someone moves on, we’ll all know why they moved into the top four. If someone moves out, you will be able to write why they moved out. No smoke-filled rooms. . . . None of that. It’s out there. Now we all know.”

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