LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Alabama is not considered one of the teams capable of stopping Kentucky from winning another Southeastern Conference basketball championship. Tennessee and Auburn are the teams to fear.
The Crimson Tide might have been a truly dangerous team, but Collin Sexton, their dynamic point guard, decided he’d play his sophomore season for the Cleveland Cavaliers instead for Avery Johnson. Braxton Key transferred to Virginia, where he starts at power forward for Tony Bennett.
But this is Johnson’s fourth season in Tuscaloosa, and he’s starting to show that he can recruit and develop the kind of players that Wimp Sanderson and C.M. Newton had at Alabama.
Kentucky discovered that Saturday afternoon at Coleman Coliseum.
Down eight in the final minute, the Wildcats rallied furiously but lost, 77-75, when Tyler Herro’s three-point shot from the top of the key hit the back of the rim at the buzzer.
Kentucky never led by more than five and they did not lead in the game's final 13 1/2 minutes. The Wildcats shot only 37.1 percent in the second half and lost to the Crimson Tide for the first time in 11 games.
For John Calipari it was his first loss in the SEC opener since his 2011 team fell at Georgia. That team, led by Brandon Knight, finished the season in the Final Four. Kentucky (11-3) had won its last four games.
Down 74-66 in the final minutes, Kentucky made a final push when Herro made a three (his second of the game) off by pass with Reid Travis with 39.6 seconds to play.
Ashton Hagans forced a turnover and made a layup to make it 74-71. After Alabama's Dazon Ingram made two free throws Kentucky got another driving layup from Hagans.
Hagans was not finished. He picked up a loose ball in front of the Alabama bench and fed P.J. Washington for a dunk to cut Bama's lead to 76-75 with five seconds left.
The Wildcats fouled John Petty, who missed a free throw before making one. That gave Kentucky a final shot for a tie -- or win.
They played for the win. Washington inbounded the ball to Hagans, who raced downcourt and then found Herro several steps behind the top of the key. His shot was on line but too strong -- and after the ball hit the court, the Alabama players celebrated as if their football team had just defeated Clemson.
Hagans continued his string of formidable performances at both ends of the court, finishing with 12 points, six assists and three steals. All five UK starters scored at least a dozen but the Wildcats got only 11 points from its reserves.
But Alabama, which was unranked, also has a freshman point guard who decided to skip his senior year in high school. Kira Lewis Jr. blossomed during the 2018 summer AAU circuit and has stepped in for Sexton with solid play for Johnson. He made a pair of threes in the second half, finishing with a dozen points.
"We both have point guards who should be in high school," Johnson told Calipari during the pre-game handshake. "Isn't that crazy?"
Tevin Mack caused more of the issues for John Calipari’s team. He’s a transfer from Texas but Mack played like he was trying to prove that he belonged in the NBA Draft lottery.
I can’t remember the last player who delivered against Kentucky the way Mack did. Mack took six shots from distance in the first half — and he made all six.
Those numbers would be ridiculous for any player but they were especially outrageous for Mack, considering he was a 29.6 three-point shooter (16 of 54) who made five threes against Ball State but had failed to make more than two in another game this season.
That could not continue. And it didn’t. Mack forced his first three-pointer in the second half and it banged off the rim. He scored only two more points, finishing with 22.
The Wildcats return to Rupp Arena for their SEC home opener Tuesday night. Texas A&M visits. The Aggies played their first league game Saturday at 6 p.m. against Arkansas. They’re 6-5 but lost to Texas Southern of the Southwest Athletic Conference, by 15 in College Station in their last game.
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