TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – It isn’t going to be an overnight fix or even a one-week fix. It’s going to take time.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari has cautioned fans that if they’re expecting the No. 15/12 Wildcats to go back to how they were playing earlier in the year in a moment’s notice that they will be disappointed. If it took three weeks for Kentucky to dissolve to the point that it had, he said, it would take time for his reboot to fully get it back.
The Wildcats’ next test, as well as the reboot’s, was Saturday against an Alabama team that ranked in the top 25 nationally in defensive efficiency and had the No. 1 rebounding margin in the Southeastern Conference. It was the perfect barometer to see where the Cats were, Calipari said.
And after a 67-58 Kentucky win in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, it’s safe to say that UK has work to do but the reboot is working.
“That was a happy locker room,” Calipari said. “It’s a locker room that cares, that cares about each other.”
Playing in game two of Coach Cal’s reboot, the Wildcats (20-5, 10-2 SEC) looked like a new team on defense for the first 20 minutes. Kentucky held Alabama without a field goal for more than four minutes on two separate occasions, and limited the Crimson Tide to just 20 first-half points, the lowest total by a UK opponent in any half all season.
The second half, however, was once again a different story. After shooting just 32.0 percent in the first half, the Tide (14-10, 7-5 SEC) shot 57.7 percent in the second half and nearly doubled their first-half point total. Alabama is now the sixth consecutive team to shoot 53.3 percent or better in the second half versus UK.
“In the first half, I think our defense was great,” Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe said. “I think maybe the last three minutes or four minutes I don’t think they scored until they got on the free-throw line within like 30 seconds left in the half. But the second half, we weren’t the same. I think KP (Kenny Payne) said they shot like 57 percent, which is not good in our favor. Most of that stuff is layups and stuff like that, but gotta get back. We’re going to go practice. We’re going to continue to work on our defense, we’re going to continue to talk and jell together.”
Midway through the second half, Kentucky led by 18 points and had all the momentum at Coleman Coliseum. But after UK freshman forward Bam Adebayo had to go to the bench with four fouls and 9:54 to play, the momentum began to shift and Alabama went on a 13-2 run to cut the UK lead down to seven with 4:49 to play.
From there, the Wildcats showed an improved sense of urgency and fight that had been missing in recent games, and it was Briscoe, the Cats’ sophomore leader, who led the charge.
“He’s our team leader and our go-to guy, definitely, for big buckets at the end,” Dominique Hawkins said. “Him and Malik (Monk), they’re able to be clutch enough to hit those shots. Those two players want the ball in those moments and that’s what makes them really (good).”
Briscoe, who had scored just four points in the opening 35 minutes of the game, scored seven consecutive points in the final five minutes. Leading by seven, Briscoe made a tough layup through contact and hit the ensuing foul shot with 4:24 left on the clock. After an Alabama layup on the other end, Briscoe came back and hit a pull-up jumper to put the Cats up 10. After four straight points by Alabama, Briscoe again took over and drove to the basket to hit another tough layup.
“Coach trusts me with the ball late down in the game,” Briscoe said. “I take care of the ball. I don’t turn it over or anything like that. They were leaving me open and I was taking what they were giving me and I was able to make big plays down at the end.”
Briscoe finished with 11 points, a team-high 11 rebounds, four assists and one steal in 35 minutes. It’s his team-high tying fourth double-double of the season and the sixth one of his career.
“He’s got a toughness to him,” Calipari said of Briscoe, “and he’s got a fight.”
Derek Willis, who had attempted just two shots the entire game, sealed the victory for Kentucky with a 3-pointer coming out of a timeout with 1:18 left in the game to put the Cats up nine.
“Look, I ran that last play for Derek Willis, but you have to know I ran it three minutes before, and because he didn’t want the ball he tried to screen,” Coach Cal said. “That’s not a play for him to screen. And I called him over, ‘Why did you do that? You didn’t want to shoot the ball did you?’ So then I ran it again. We’re running it again. ‘De’Aaron throw him the ball.’ And the kid made a 3. I gotta give him credit. That’s growing.”
Prior to Saturday’s game, the NCAA Tournament men’s basketball selection committee ranked Kentucky as the No. 12 overall seed in the tournament if the field was set at that time. UK had lost three of its past five games prior to Saturday’s victory, but is now 2-0 in the reboot, and as Coach Cal said after the game, far from the only team dealing with issues.
“We’ve struggled some at times, but let me say this to all of you: Every team in the country is having issues right now,” he said. “We just want to be better at dealing with ours than they are dealing with theirs.”
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