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Kentucky locks down Alabama: 5 takeaways & postgame chatter

Kentucky advances to the semi-finals of this weekend’s SEC Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Kentucky vs Alabama Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Postseason time is here as the Kentucky Wildcats traveled to Nashville, TN for the annual Southeastern Conference tournament. With the Alabama Crimson Tide knocking off the Ole Miss Rebels on Thursday night, Kentucky’s rematch of the SEC regular season opener was locked in.

With the benefit of fresh legs, Kentucky came out of the gate as the much more aggressive team. The Wildcats, led by Tyler Herro’s 11 points, jumped out to a 39-29 halftime lead. In the second period, Kentucky came out with sound execution to sustain their lead built earlier in the game. It was just 20 minutes of basketball until Kentucky claimed their first victory of this postseason, 73-55 over Alabama.

With Reid Travis back, Kentucky’s bench successfully contributing and the Wildcats’ starters clicking at both ends, all is right in the world. Next up: the winner of tonight’s game featuring the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Tennessee Volunteers.

Defense Travels

In the game of football, elite defenses usually travel. In regards to Kentucky’s trip to Nashville, their swarming defense also made the trip. Behind what felt like a Rupp Arena crowd, the Wildcats covered every inch of the court in suffocating fashion.

As a team, Kentucky blocked nine shots and came up with six steals in the first half. They held the Crimson Tide to just 29 first half points and brought exceptional energy on the defensive end of the court. Individually, Keldon Johnson was jumping off your TV screen and Tyler Herro remained in the face of John Petty for the entirety of Friday’s contest.

As Kentucky advances further into the tournament, their attention at that end of the court will be necessary against more talented offensive teams.

Herro Shines

Speaking of Herro’s defense on Petty, his offense was just as spectacular. Entering the season, the freshman shooting guard was projected to be a three point shooter and a multi-year player.

As the season has unfolded, Herro has proven he’s much more than a spot-up shooter. In fact, his first year at Kentucky has consisted of precise cuts to the basket and a mid-range game that mirrors the likes of NBA All-Star Klay Thompson.

Friday’s action wasn’t any different, as he scored 20 points to lead the Wildcats to victory. Herro’s calm, cool and collective personality could very well be Kentucky’s key to their fifth-straight SEC Championship trophy.

Block Party

Well before Friday’s tip-off at Bridgestone Arena, a “Sea of Blue” crowded the streets of downtown Nashville. Celebrating what many expect to be another successful trip to Nashville, Kentucky fans claimed their territory in the heart of Music City.

Head coach John Calipari and his Wildcats did the same on the basketball court, locking down the painted area against Alabama. Leading the way was sophomore PJ Washington, blocking four shots in addition to his double-double of 10 points and 12 rebounds. Fresh off a significant knee injury, Kentucky center Reid Travis blocked three shots while EJ Montgomery, Keldon Johnson, Nick Richards and Tyler Herro each had a swat of their own.

Though Kentucky picked up a few more fouls than they were comfortable with, their aggression to defend the rim is welcomed in the postseason.

Baker Steps Up

While Jemarl Baker had some nice moments in the regular season, it was a struggle more often than not for the redshirt freshman. However, Baker stepped up in a big way in the first half of Kentucky’s rematch with Alabama.

Baker hit hid lone three-pointer while adding a layup in traffic and hit a free throw to give him six points and help the Wildcats emerge with a 10-point halftime lead.

While it seems minor, that was a big contribution when Alabama was doing enough to keep within striking distance. And when NCAA Tournament play begins, just getting 3-6 points can go a long way in helping Kentucky win close games.

Travis Excels in Return

There was high speculation surrounding the return of Reid Travis. After sitting during last week’s Senior Day against Florida, it was assumed his return would come when Kentucky began their postseason play. However, the question was how much rust he would have and would Travis be a factor.

Well, Calipari and Kentucky fans got their answer.

Travis didn’t start on Friday but came off the bench less than three minutes into the game. Though he picked up two early fouls, he finished with eight points, seven rebounds and three blocks while bringing a physicality that isn’t displayed in the box score.

Regardless of who Kentucky draws for tomorrow’s outing, Travis and his presence in the painted area will be welcomed with open arms.