The big talking point around this team has been defense, or lack thereof. Alabama by no means is an offensive juggernaut (no player averages 12 ppg), but this was still going to be a good test for the Cats as they look to make big improvements here as the regular season winds down.
It certainly looked dramatically different in the opening minutes. UK’s first four defensive possessions saw the Cats force an offensive foul, a travel, a steal and a blocked shot. They also committed four fouls in the first three minutes as they were being far more physical than usual.
Wenyen Gabriel erases the shot on one end and Malik Monk does his thing on the other. pic.twitter.com/CM8cdUvSWM— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) February 11, 2017
Alabama had just eight shot attempts in the first eight minutes and had fewer made field goals (3) than turnovers (4).
Malik Monk with a fantastic block. pic.twitter.com/8FXkPsakc7— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) February 11, 2017
Bam Adebayo with the big rejection. pic.twitter.com/c5RTGxeuS6— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) February 11, 2017
The defensive dominance would continue for the entire half as it was easily one of, if not the best defensive performance.
Bam Adebayo with another blocked shot. pic.twitter.com/hQpBVNxuNg— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) February 11, 2017
The Cats closed the first half on a 7-1 run and held Bama without a field goal over the last 3:35.
Best defensive half of the season? Gotta be up there. pic.twitter.com/Q8QwxzGot2— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) February 11, 2017
Bama's 20 first-half points were fewest in any half by a UK opponent this year. Michigan State’s 22 in the second half of their early-season matchup was the previous low.
Even though the Tide got 38 points in the second half, they still finished with just four assists vs 16 turnovers as UK made everything challenging.
This was exactly what the doctor ordered for these young Cats in terms of defense.
As bad as UK’s defense has been, their rebounding hasn’t been much better, and this is an area Alabama has been strong at (they rank 18th nationally in rebounds per game). But as physical as Bama is, UK matched it throughout this game, especially on the boards, where UK led for much of the game, including a 22-19 margin at the break.
And it wasn’t any one guy beasting on the boards as much as everyone was just consistently boxing out their man and winning those 50-50 battles. That was important in a game like this with a team like Bama failing to do much offensively, and a lot of their points ended coming off those offensive boards they did get.
Isaac Humphries especially was a big asset on the boards and gave UK great minutes when Bam was in foul trouble. UK finished with a 41-38 edge on the boards and 12-9 advantage on offensive rebounds.
Like the defense, this is an area that is making big steps forward.
The Cats have rarely done well this season when De’Aaron Fox was either out or not playing well. The latter was in play this game as Fox simply could not find any offensive rhythm, and his passing was very suspect as well.
Even amid Fox’ struggles, UK was able to take control throughout and led by as many as 18 at one point. With Fox struggling mightily, Dominique Hawkins stepped up big to help the Cats take command early on. He was a big reason why Kentucky held a 29-20 halftime lead thanks to his five points over the final 3:24.
Dominique Hawkins baseline runner. pic.twitter.com/sIfSOM4EAR— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) February 11, 2017
How freaking good has Dominique Hawkins been today? pic.twitter.com/99U9mX3CnW— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) February 11, 2017
If not for Hawkins, UK may very well have lost this game. It’s great to see the senior guard step up and lead this team when they needed his energy.
Zay Closes It Out
Despite all of the good UK did, they struggled enough offensively that Bama made a serious run at the end of the game, but that’a when Isiah Briscoe took over.
Tough left hander off glass by Isaiah Briscoe. pic.twitter.com/7bsfxFrlqK— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) February 11, 2017
Time after time when the Cats couldn’t find any offense, Briscoe stepped up and hit big shot after big shot to keep the Cats ahead.
Great dish by De'Aaron Fox and an even better finish by Isaiah Briscoe. pic.twitter.com/e1L10PpPiG— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) February 11, 2017
Another big bucket by Isaiah Briscoe. pic.twitter.com/YDa1Mcpqxz— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) February 11, 2017
Briscoe was big down the stretch. He scored seven of his 11 points in the last 4:24 to help seal the W pic.twitter.com/jeMd4wwHIw— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) February 11, 2017
The game got closer than it should have been, but Briscoe made sure this would still end as a Wildcat victory.