After an impressive showing in Auburn, the ‘Cats looked to build on that momentum and leave the state of Alabama with two straight road wins and sole possession of 3rd place in the SEC. If you went to bed after the first half, you would think the ‘Cats took care of business down the stretch. The Tide had other plans.
Still without Willie Cauley-Stein, Nerlens Noel needed to play big. It was t-shirt night in Tuscaloosa as fans were continually reminded to “look good for ESPN” and wear their red shirts. It was another ugly start for the ‘Cats as they made only 5 field goals, had 4 turnovers and 3 fouls in the first 7 minutes. Alabama’s guards stripped the ball early and often, allowing them to get into the fast break and get fouls against UK. The foul situation was specifically bad for Alex Poythress, who picked up two with 10:15 left in the first half.
Despite the 4-14 shooting from the Tide, Kentucky only maintained a minimal lead. Noel was doing it on the defensive end by swatting shots. Kyle Wiltjer was taking care of the offense. With 7:24 to play in the 1st, it was 18-14 UK. On an inbound play, Julius Mays hits a corner three to spark a 14-4 run fueled by Kyle Wiltjer abusing the smaller defender. Fittingly, Wiltjer snags the rebound before half as the ‘Cats went into the locker room up 33-24.
Alabama is known to be a 2nd half team. They were down in their last game to Texas A&M by 11 at half, and won by a point. The Tide have also held their opponents below 50 points in three consecutive games. Kentucky and John Calipari knew this, right? The ‘Cats seemed to be on cruise control to another road win as Kyle Wiltjer lead with 11 points. The Tide were shooting 35%, compared to UK’s 48% and losing the rebounding battle by 11.
If there was any sign or indication that things would just not be that easy for the ‘Cats, Nerlens Noel’s knee may have been the big red flag. On his first rebound of the second stanza, he came down awkwardly and doubled over in pain. He gimped around and eventually walked it off. The ‘Cats however, couldn’t just walk off what was about to happen. After Alabama tried to press the ‘Cats in the first half, they sunk into their halfcourt defense and trusted that they would stop the ‘Cats enough to win.
With 4:49 gone, the ‘Cats started 0-7 from the field, 2 turnovers, and 1 point on a free-throw. Alabama was blitzing the ‘Cats on the offensive end, the Tide ran off a 13-3 run, and outscored UK 11-1 in the half. Besides Archie Goodwin getting fouled on drives, the ‘Cats did not put up a single point until the 11:40 to go mark. Kentucky went a total of 11:30 without scoring a single basket. While Noel continued to rack up blocks, Kyle Wiltjer disappeared. With 10:08 to go, Alex Poythress picks up his 4th foul and Alabama nails the 3-ball for their biggest lead of the night, 41-38.
After Archie Goodwin goes 1-2 from the FT line, Alabama gets a bucket inside and increases their lead to 4. The place is rockin’, and all the momentum is in favor of the Tide. Kyle Wiltjer drives and kicks to Julius Mays for a Kentucky 3-pointer and the lead is back down to 1. Between 3:35 left in the 1st half, till 8:18 to go in the 2nd half, the Mays 3-pointer was the ‘Cats 2nd basket in that time span.
5:39 to go and the Tide lead 43-42, but it feels like ten if you are a Kentucky fan. The reckless nature of Archie Goodwin, and the poor decision making by Ryan Harrow killed the ‘Cats all night, but Kentucky had no other choice. With 4;26 to play a crucial blow to the ‘Cats comes when Alabama’s Trevor Lacey drives on Alex Poythress who tries to take the charge but gets tagged with his 5th foul. Noel tried to pin the ball against the glass, and the referees also call goal-tending. Count the bucket, the foul, and a FT for Alabama.
With 1:13 to play in the 2nd half, Kyle Wiltjer had finally found his footing on offense. After getting a couple of shots off of an isolation, WIltjer gets fouled and goes to the line with the ‘Cats down 51-50. The free-throw rattles out and Alabama goes to their end and gets a tip-in off of a miss. On the next possession, Mays throws up a wild shot, gets his own rebound, and calls timeout with :39 secs. left. Archie Goodwin then tries to drive in among the Alabama bigs, doesn’t get the foul, and misses the layup. Alabama is fouled in a hurry and makes 1 of 2 from the line, it’s 54-50 and things start to look grim for the ‘Cats.
Archie Goodwin drives to the basket wildly again, gets blocked. Alabama sinks two more free-throws. A desperation 3-pointer from Mays makes it 57-53. The Tide sink two more free-throws and Noel throws down a follow slam that means nothing, and ball game.
When all the media start talking about this UK team “turning the corner”, what will they say now? Auburn just wasn’t that good of a team? Alabama is a better team, yes. What is scary, is there are much better teams than Alabama in the SEC. The ‘Cats cannot shoot 4-9 from the free-throw stripe, commit turnovers, and not score a single point from the field in over 11 minutes and expect to win. If Alabama was Florida, Missouri, or maybe even Ole Miss, the ‘Cats would have got blown out. Frustration and aggravation make you ask how they lost this game. Realization and reflection will tell you Alabama locked down the ‘Cats offense and played a better half when it counted the most. The ‘Cats fall to 12-6 (3-2), and falls into 4th place in the SEC.