Banged-up Kentucky reaches SEC title game
Kentucky looks very much like a young team peaking at just the right time.
Except for one little issue.
Do the No. 15 Wildcats have enough players heading into the Southeastern Conference title game and the tournament that really matters?
Brandon Knight finally got rolling in Atlanta, scoring 10 straight points to blow it open, and Kentucky romped to a 72-58 semifinal victory over Alabama on Saturday.
”We’d have smacked anybody the way we played,” coach John Calipari said.
But the closing minutes, with Kentucky way out in front, must have been disconcerting to the Bluegrass faithful. Calipari only has six players in his rotation – including three freshmen – and as the clock ticked down, the Wildcats still had four starters and main backup DeAndre Liggins on the court.
”I even had an assistant saying, ‘Do you want to get these guys out?”’ Calipari said.
Maybe he should’ve listened.
First, Liggins tumbled to the court hard and limped to the locker room. Then, Doron Lamb went down going for a rebound, spraining his left ankle. He rolled around in obvious pain and couldn’t put any pressure on it as he was helped to the bench by teammate Josh Harrellson and a member of the basketball staff.
Liggins called his injury just a ”minor tweak” to the ankle. Lamb’s appeared more serious, with Calipari saying he could be doubtful for Sunday’s SEC title game against regular-season champion Florida, a 77-66 victor over Vanderbilt.
”We’ll see how bad he wants to play,” Calipari said. ”We’ll play without him if we have to.”
The coach said he kept his starters in the game because Alabama was pressing on every possession, fighting to the very end to cut into its big deficit.
”You don’t know my bench,” said Calipari, whose team has won seven of eight, the last five in a row. ”If they had stopped pressing, I would have started subbing at 3 minutes (to go).”
That said, he’s decided that this is the way it must be: Kentucky will only go with six players right on into the NCAA tournament, assuming he can keep them all healthy.
”One thing I’ve learned about young players: they have the pain threshold of a fourth-grader,” Calipari scoffed.
The Wildcats (24-8) raced to a 37-21 halftime lead, even with Knight missing all four of his shots. Alabama (21-11) scored two quick baskets to start the second half before the freshman guard put an end to any thought of another big comeback by the Crimson Tide.
He knocked down his first two 3-pointers of the tournament, bolted into the lane for a layin and came off a screen to swish another jumper with a hand in his face, stretching Kentucky’s lead to 51-30.
Lamb led the Wildcats with 15 points, while Harrellson and Liggins had 14 apiece, Knight 12 and Darius Miller 10.
Knight, the freshman who makes Kentucky go, got off to a slow start in Atlanta. He was only 5 of 15 – including 0 of 6 from 3-point range – in a quarterfinal victory over Mississippi. He missed three more 3s in the opening half against Alabama, leaving him scoreless beyond the arc.
He soon took care of that, and the Wildcats were off and running.
Alabama was coming off an improbable victory over Georgia in the quarterfinals, rallying from a 14-point deficit in the final 7 minutes and winning in overtime.
The Crimson Tide will have to hope that’s enough to claim an NCAA bid. The team came to Atlanta squarely on the bubble despite winning the SEC West with a gaudy 12-4 record, saddled with three ugly losses early in the season and a low RPI rating.
A win over Kentucky almost certainly would’ve locked up a berth for the Tide. Now, it will be a nervous Sunday as the team waits to see if it’s among the 68-school field.
”I think we’ve had a very good year, considering where we started and where we finished up,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. ”The SEC was our focus. Whatever happens will happen. Whatever happens won’t diminish what these guys accomplished this year.”
Alabama was hampered by an injury to Tony Mitchell, who was on the bench for a long stretch in the first half after getting his left leg tangled with a teammate. He was able to return after the break and led the Tide with 16 points.
JaMychal Green added 12 and Chris Hines 10.
Kentucky was technically the road team, but in name only.
As usual, the Wildcats felt right at home in the SEC tournament, with virtually the entire crowd at the Georgia Dome dressed in blue. That’s especially the case in Atlanta, which the Kentucky fans have renamed ”Catlanta.”
Alabama won the regular-season meeting, edging the Wildcats 68-66 in Tuscaloosa. But Kentucky is streaking now, its only loss since mid-February an overtime setback at Arkansas.
”Kentucky was very good,” Grant said. ”They came out right from the beginning. We were playing catch-up the entire game.”