First, the selections committee tells us Kentucky is one of the top 16 seeds – a 12, no less. Then, the Wildcats went out and nearly proved them wrong.
Any SEC road victory is a good one, but in their 67-58 win over Alabama, the Wildcats had so many people in foul trouble it looked as though John Calipari might be forced to play Hamidou Diallo.
Instead, Kentucky made just enough plays down the stretch to remain atop the Southeastern Conference and, more importantly, stay in contention for that three seed in an NCAA regional – even if it means being part of a bracket that might include Villanova, Louisville and UCLA.
Nobody said it was going to be easy.
And nobody said you have to make it hard on yourself, either. That’s what Kentucky did in Tuscaloosa, where the Cats opened up an 18-point lead as the Crimson Tide kept clanging and clunking at the free throw line. The Wildcats weren’t much better.
But until the fouls began to pile up, it looked as though the marathon practice sessions had paid off as Kentucky appeared far more interested in playing defense than they were as they watched a 25-point lead over LSU nearly dissolve.
A 29-20 halftime lead gradually grew, but so did the rash of personal fouls that eventually engulfed Bam Adebayo, who was having a terrific game. And after he retired to the bench, four other UK players ended up tagged with their fourth fouls.
Fortunately for Calipari – and Big Blue fans everywhere – the clock ran out as Kentucky made just enough plays.
The Cats came up clutch when it counted, especially their barrel-chested leader who on this day was wall-to-wall heart.
Alabama had cut the deficit to 55-49 inside the 2:20 mark. Kentucky worked the perimeter and then Isaiah Briscoe made a break for the rim, hanging and hitting. He absorbed a foul as well but it happened to be a game where his free throw stroke deserted him (1-of-7). Still, the Cats led, 57-49.
Alabama quickly answered with a bucket and Calipari called time. After the break, the Wildcats worked it high again and this time, Derek Willis popped open and drained a three. On CBS, Bill Raftery squealed, “DAGGER!” Perhaps he missed the LSU game.
It was 60-51 with 1:14 left. If there’s one thing the Bayou Bengals taught us, that’s plenty of time.
Sure enough, the Tide answered with a bucket by Braxton Key but then Malik Monk went to work. It was Monk who had seemingly tried to single-handedly fight off Alabama’s comeback with a quiver full of off-balance outside shots, with a generous amount of time on the shot clock.
This time, Monk drew the defense, drove the lane, rose and at the last second, switched the ball from his right hand to his left and dropped it in. If Willis’ triple wasn’t a dagger, Monks bucket was, making it 62-53 with 40 seconds left.
De’Aaron Fox’s steal and runout, plus late free throws, wrapped up a nine-point win which didn’t seem that close.
In Tuscaloosa, Calipari told reporters the offense stunk because they worked so hard on defense. And it was, indeed, better, but ‘Bama still seemed to find a way to the rim far too often. Perhaps that is why coach Avery Johnson opened his post-game remarks by saying he believed this game would be “very winnable.”
And it might have been. But the Wildcats gutted it out, with an emotional drive designed to show they care. In his pre-game remarks to radio man Tom Leach, Calipari said he told his players some fans believe they didn’t, because their body language fairly screamed a nonchalance.
They were excited at Alabama, focused. And happy to get a victory that keeps them on top of the SEC, tied with the Florida Gators.
The committee believes the Wildcats are worthy of a three seed – right now. It’s up to them to show they are.