TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – One step forward, two steps back.
Just when it looked like Kentucky had turned the corner on a frustratingly up-and-down season, the Wildcats suffered a costly 59-55 loss at Alabama on Tuesday night. The Cats (12-6, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) blew a nine-point halftime lead and failed to make the winning plays down the stretch in a tough-to-swallow loss in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“It’s disappointing,” sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer said. “We were definitely coming off a big game so we wanted to keep making improvements. We let ourselves down.”
The biggest letdown is how it happened.
Leading comfortably in the first half, Kentucky looked like it was well on its way to its third straight win and second straight convincing margin. But you know that whole saying about letting a team hang around? It came back to bite the Cats on Tuesday night.
After a methodical, if not dominating first 15 minutes, UK failed to put Alabama out of reach at the end of the first half and went scoreless over the final 3:34.
“We should have been up 15,” John Calipari said.
Instead, the Cats were only up 33-24, just far enough for UK to feel comfortable but close enough for Alabama to feel like it was still in the game.
UK’s end-of-the-half drought spilled over into the second and into epic proportions.
In the course of an 11-3 Alabama run to open the second half, the Cats missed their first eight shots and turned the ball over four times. UK mustered just three points – all on free throws – in its first 12 possessions of the second half and didn’t make a field goal until the 12:04 mark.
Nerlens Noel continued his outstanding defensive play with seven blocks, bringing his total to 27 swats over the last four games, while grabbing a game-high 13 boards to go along with eight points.
Dating back to the first half, the field goal drought lasted 11:30 of game time, more than enough to allow Alabama to climb back into the contest.
“We played not to lose, which young guys do on the road at times,” Coach Cal said.
At that point, Alabama was all in for the win.
Abandoning its press, which Kentucky sliced through at will in the first half, the Crimson Tide went back to its trademark physical half-court defense of the last couple of years and forced UK’s guards to beat them off the dribble.
The Cats’ perimeter players were not up to the task.
In arguably their most disappointing game of the season, Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin combined to go 5 of 24 from the field for 13 points.
“Our guard play was not near their guard play,” Calipari said. “It just wasn’t. We reverted back to just throwing it to Kyle Wiltjer in the post to try to keep the game close to give us a chance to win.”
Wiltjer, performing admirably for the third straight game, was the key to Kentucky’s first-half lead. He scored 11 points before halftime on 5-of- 8 shooting, but the Cats didn’t go back to him until late in the game.
Instead, as Alabama got more physical, the Cats stubbornly took it right at the teeth of the interior defense to no avail. In the second half, Alabama nearly had more blocks (seven) than UK had field goals (eight).
“If they’re not going to call a foul, then you need to pull up or shoot a runner,” Calipari said. “We just kept telling (Goodwin) and he just kept going.”
The Cats went almost exclusively back to Wiltjer late, but they committed too many costly errors down the stretch once the game was close. On so many of the things that Coach Cal has talked to his guys about late in games – staying down, rebounding, and not taking chances – the Cats reverted when the game got tight Tuesday night
“It’s young guys,” Calipari said. “They panicked a little bit and we weren’t able to settle them down on the side.”
Freshman forward Nerlens Noel (eight points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks), who has shown tremendous signs of discipline of late on defense, reverted to his early season habit of going after too many blocked shots and pump fakes, but the most game-changing mistakes down the stretch were offensive rebounds and fouls.
“They had nine offensive rebounds, but three were in the very late tip-in plays that killed us,” Calipari said. “You stop them and they miss it, but they tip it in.”
The most costly was a Nick Jacobs’ tip-in with 51 seconds left that put Alabama up 53-50. Kentucky would never recover from it, marking the first time in 13 tries this season the Cats have blown a halftime lead.
Oddly enough, it was the Cats’ 17th loss at Coleman Coliseum in 34 tries, a rare sign of futility for UK’s storied program. It was also just second loss Kentucky has suffered in 73 tries under Coach Cal the when holding the opponent to 63 or fewer points. The only other loss was against Connecticut in the 2011 Final Four.
“When I was coaching at UMass, I loved it when my team shot 35, 34 percent and we won,” Coach Cal said. “(Alabama) shot 36 percent, 15 percent from the 3, got outrebounded by 12 rebounds – listen folks – and won. I loved that kind of game. It’s a gut game. It had nothing to do with anything else. Neither one of us played well. They gutted it. They had discipline at the end. We did not, and that’s sometimes what happens with a young team.”
Young UK remains, and disappointingly for Calipari, not completely bought in.
All indications were the Cats had bought in and turned the season around following a grind-it-out win against Tennessee and an unforeseen rout at Auburn. As Coach Cal and everyone else learned in Alabama, those were just “signs” from a team that Calipari admitted Tuesday took a “step back.”
“When you’re totally bought in, you’ll come in every game and know what your role is. That doesn’t mean you make shots, but you play the way you have to play for us to have success. … We’re still not there yet.”