Alabama fades late, falls 55-48 to No. 25 Kentucky
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Alabama caught No. 25 Kentucky at the wrong time.
The Crimson Tide led the Wildcats 28-25 at halftime but couldn't keep up the pace in the second half and lost 55-48 on Tuesday night.
Kentucky (22-8, 12-5 Southeastern Conference) used its size in the post and rebounding prowess to avoid a third straight loss for the first time under coach John Calipari. Alabama (12-18, 6-11) beat the Wildcats 59-55 last season in Tuscaloosa but couldn't piece together a similar performance in dropping its fourth game in the past six.
Kentucky clinched the No. 2 seed for next week's SEC tournament.
Alabama coach Anthony Grant said Kentucky's 41-27 rebounding edge was the difference in the outcome and said the Wildcats' post players posed a problem for his team from the opening tip.
"I thought both halves it really affected us and our ability to rebound the ball," he said. "From start to finish, I thought tonight, it was probably the difference. Obviously, we knew coming into the game Kentucky was the best team in offensive rebounding in the country and we would have to do a great job rebounding with their size and physicality. It was an issue in both halves."
Trevor Releford had 13 points for Alabama, which shot just 33 percent in the second half and 38 percent overall.
Grant said another difference was Kentucky's free throw shooting. Although the Wildcats shot just 32.7 percent from the field (16 of 49), they made 18 of 24 from the free throw line.
"The difference in the game to me was offensive rebounding and the free throw line," Grant said.
Julius Randle had 12 points and 11 rebounds for Kentucky, which needed a bounce after Saturday's loss at South Carolina and with a huge hurdle looming this weekend at No. 1 Florida.
The Wildcats used a 15-2 second-half run to build a 43-34 lead and they added several smaller runs to hold off the stubborn Crimson Tide in their regular season home finale.
Dakari Johnson and James Young had nine points each for Kentucky.
"We shot (33) percent for the game and won. I'm happy," Calipari said. "We're still not all the way back. Guys were really tentative."
And though Kentucky faced an Alabama squad that had won just three of its last 10 coming in, the Crimson Tide's 73-57 win over rival Auburn on Saturday symbolized what can happen when everything is working. Levi Randolph's 24 points led the way and the junior guard had scored 70 points in his last three games.
However, SEC player of the year candidate Releford provided the Crimson Tide's spark in a low-scoring first half by recording nine of their first 13 points to quiet cheers for fan favorites Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson after the senior reserves each hit 3-pointers to open Kentucky's scoring.
The Wildcats regrouped to take a 21-20 lead on a free throw by Willie Cauley-Stein, an aspect that helped them trail just 28-25 at halftime despite 6-of-25 shooting. Kentucky took 15 free throws, three times as many as Alabama, making 11.
The Wildcats followed with the energy and ball movement Calipari had waited for all game at a time they seemed resigned to just stay close. Trailing 32-28, Randle made consecutive baskets, the Harrisons added consecutive 3-pointers and Johnson sandwiched dunks around a free throw by Young.
The big run over 4:57 provided Kentucky's biggest lead at 43-34. Alabama got within 48-47 on Randolph's jumper with 5:11 left but only added a free throw by Releford after that.