Well, let's make no mistake about it, the Kentucky Wildcats deserved to lose this basketball game, and they did. Once again, the Wildcats allowed an SEC team to physically dominate them in the interior, at least for one half of basketball, and that half was enough. It is a tough loss for Kentucky fans to swallow, and raises some serious questions about how far this team can realistically go in the post-season. It shouldn't be overstated, but this loss was a major setback for Kentucky, one that could end up costing them at least one and possibly two seed positions in the tournament.
For Alabama, they played a terrific first half and held on by their fingernails in the second. There is no way they could have expected to put two halves of basketball together like the first one, and they did not. To their credit though, they managed to make the free throws that Kentucky did not, and played just enough offense in the second stanza to hold the Wildcats off. Congratulations to the Crimson Tide on a huge win, one that legitimately gives them an opportunity to get an at-large bid in the post season if they continue to play well.
From the HDTV set here in Louisville, it looked like Kentucky was too "up" for this game. They seemed very helter-skelter and played like freshmen, something they haven't done very often this season. Kentucky's interior defense was very disappointing, and Josh Harrellson struggled to deal with the physicality of Alabama's front line. Even worse, Terrence Jones and Darius Miller set him up to fail often, particularly in the first half, by allowing easy passes into the post from the wing.
More after the jump.
In the second half, the Wildcats were much more aggressive on defense and adjusted to the physicality of the game. Terrence Jones finally discovered his manhood and got the better of the matchup with JaMychal Green in the second half. Darius Miller, despite being undersized and forced to guard men bigger than him, found that he could do it if he would just fight to keep his man from getting position. It was good to see both him and Jones grow up as around the basket players, but it seems passing strange that it needs to happen at this point in the season.
Kentucky's transition defense was not good at all at times tonight, but it did tighten up down the stretch. The problem is that they simply could not afford, in a game as hotly contested as this one was, to keep making careless mistakes with the basketball and defensive breakdowns that led to dunks or fouls. I can't remember more than one or two fast breaks for Kentucky, which says a lot about Alabama's transition defense.
Another problem was that the Wildcats couldn't throw the ball in the ocean. We won't know how poorly until the stats become available, but Kentucky has now struggled twice on the road in the SEC. Part of that was the solid Alabama defense, particularly on the inside. But UK missed very many wide-open three-point shots, and you simply can't do that when that shot is your major offensive weapon. Live by the three, die by the three, they say, and tonight Kentucky died from three-point starvation. That, and an uncharacteristically unconscious night from three for the Crimson Tide.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing of all was the silly turnover on Kentucky's next-to-last possession when Kentucky had just made a huge defensive play to earn a chance to escape with a win. That exchange between Knight and Lamb failed because Lamb made a half-hearted cut and Knight made a very soft pass to a closely-guarded Lamb. That is fundamental basketball, the kind they teach you in high school. Two players of Knight and Lamb's accolades and ability should never, at crunch time, make a mistake like that. It very well could have cost Kentucky the game, and it certainly reduced their chances from maybe 40% to virtually nil. That should stick with both men for a while, as it is a painful lesson.
In closing, this is a major loss for UK and puts their season in a bad place. Yes, they can still win the SEC, but there are storm flags flying high now in the Bluegrass, because an 0-2 road record is an unmistakable sign of weakness that the NCAA committee will not fail to notice, nor will the rest of the SEC. Kentucky's season just took a hit amidships below the waterline, and the USS Wildcat is taking on more water that the bilge pumps alone can remove. It's going to require everyone on the team to grab a bucket, and keep this thing from foundering. Things don't get any easier, either, as it's down to Columbia to face the Wildcat-killer South Carolina Gamecocks.