When February turns to March, the creed for college basketball teams around the nation becomes the same, survive and advance.
The No. 20 UK Hoops opened the SEC Tournament against with a 65-55 victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide in Greenville, South Carolina. The Cats were far from perfect in victory but did just enough to stay alive in their quest to win the program's first conference tournament since 1982.
With the win, the Wildcats move to 21-9 on the season and will face the South Carolina Gamecocks tomorrow.
The Cats Were Cold
The quarterfinal tilt never felt like it was out of the Wildcats grip. Even when Alabama closed the gap to four or six points in the second half, Kentucky found a way to answer and extend their lead.
Kentucky would have won by more than ten points if they shot better from the field. They finished 20-of-58 from the field (35 percent). Many of the misses were close range layups where the ball took an inhospitable bounce. The Cats did not fare so well from beyond the arc either and made only 3-of-13 attempts.
A poor shooting day is poison during a tourney and can doom even the most talented of teams. Kentucky's late-season success did not always depend on an offensive explosion, though.
The Cats Thrived on the Nitty Gritty
Kentucky is a blue collar team this season due to their obvious limitations in size and depth. Their stringent work ethic made the difference in many games during the rugged SEC slate. Often the difference makers were trips to the free throw line and turnovers.
Against the Crimson Tide, Kentucky went to the line and converted 22-of-26 attempts while staying out of foul trouble. Bama did not attempt a single free throw well into the second half. The Tide also turned the ball over 19 times to the tune of 16 Kentucky points.
Offensive rebounding saved the Cat's bacon too. They won the battle in the paint 13-5 and the extra possessions often stalled any momentum the Crimson Tide were in the process of building.
Akhator Led A Balanced Attack
UK's senior forward Evelyn Akhator torched the Tide for 29 points when the two team's initial meeting in Tuscaloosa. On a grander stage in the Palmetto State, Akhator sank Bama's battleship again. She did most of her damage in the first twenty minutes and finished with 23 points, nine rebounds, three assists, and a steal.
Makayla Epps had a sluggish first half but came alive in the third quarter when her team needed some energy. She finished with 12 points and a rebound.
Maci Morris struggled from the field but finished perfect at the foul line. Morris finished the game with 11 points and three boards.
Starting center Alyssa Rice played one of her better games of the season. The junior was 4-of-8 from the field and 3-of-4 from the charity stripe, good for 11 points. Rice also snagged five rebounds and fought harder in the paint than she did during the regular season.