Playing Kentucky in basketball is tantamount to playing Alabama in football, normally, and 2016 is no exception. Both programs seem to get even stronger in the post season. Fans know it. Players know it. Coaches know. Sadly, even officials know it.
This concept was on display in the third round of the 2016 SEC Tournament in Nashville Friday night. The result, Kentucky 85, Alabama 59, surprised no one on either side.
But to its credit, Alabama fought gamely against a team it had already lost twice to this season, by 16 and 25 points.
“Kentucky was energized and ready to play,” said Tide Coach Avery Johnson. “They pressured us all night long, and we were on our heels. We have a ways to go. We’re not on Kentucky’s level. We’ll get there.
“We fought. We just didn’t have enough in the tank. Nothing to hold our heads down about. We’ve had a really good season. We’ve been mentally tough all year. We’ve had to change the culture, and lay a foundation for the future. We’re a little bit ahead of schedule.”
Added Cats Coach John Calipari: “We played better in the second half. The only thing this team isn’t caught up with is really being zoned in to how we play defensively.
“I like my team.”
And he should. They have a shot at yet another Final Four.
A first half that saw some interesting offensive fouls called against the Crimson Tide ended with Kentucky ahead 37-27, aided by a late Mike Kessens tip-in. The first 20 minutes featured but one lead change.
Bama had eight points waved off in the first half. Obasohan nearly had a three-point play chance, but he was called for pushing off. Riley Norris made a long 3-pointer, but quickly learned his heel was on the out of bounds line. Edwards nailed a long trey, but Bama was whistled for three seconds.
It was a fairly competitive, but frustrating first half.
In the final 20 minutes, Kentucky (24-8) outscored the Tide 48-32. Not so competitive overall, but at one point Bama narrowed the deficit to nine points, only to see the Cats bury three straight treys.
The “interesting” officiating continued. As Alabama play-by-play man Chris Stewart put it, “They’re letting them play. On ONE end.”
Alabama was led in scoring by Edwards, with a career-high 20 points. He was joined in double digits by Retin Obasohan, who scored 17 of his 18 points in the second half.
Obasohan, who once again battled foul trouble, said, “I have to give my teammates credit. They stepped up.”
Edwards added, “Coach (Johnson) has been giving me confidence all year shooting the ball.”
Kentucky was led by freshman guard Jamal Murray with 23 points. He had help from oft-injured senior Alex Poythress, who scored 20. He had not made a 3-pointer in SEC play. Friday night, he nailed four. It was that kind of night for Alabama.
“We didn’t expect (Poythress) to shoot the ball like that. He played like a star tonight,” Johnson said.
Then, there’s the Kentucky back court. “I’ve seen a lot of players at the next level (NBA),” said Johnson. “Those guys (Kentucky guards Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray) are next level players. They’re an outstanding back court, best in the country in my opinion.”
Ulis had 17 points, five assists. Riley Norris had seven rebounds for the Tide.
Alabama (18-14) will now await its post season fate, hoping for a call from the NIT committee Sunday night, even if it means a first or second round matchup against the UAB Blazers for just the second time in history. There is talk of that happening, but the NIT committee will have the final say Sunday.
“I think our resume’ is good,” Johnson said, adding that he’s hopeful for an NIT bid.