NASHVILLE – Kentucky’s five-star backcourt combined for 48 points as the top-seeded Wildcats eliminated scrappy Alabama from the 2017 SEC tournament Saturday. De’Aaron Fox led all scorers with 28 points, and his fellow guard Malik Monk added 20 as the Cats held Bama off, 79-74. Monk was coming off a two-point game in the Cats’ win over Georgia Friday. Monk said he came to Bridgestone Arena early Saturday morning to get extra shots up, and it paid off.
Said Tide Coach Avery Johnson: “Their guards are NBA players. We had a hand in their face, and they made some tough shots.
“We had a tough second half. We battled, we fought, we put on our hard hat, and we came to play. There was no surrender. We battled until the very end.
“Fox got inside our defense a little too much. Give them credit, but I wouldn’t trade my guys for anybody. They kept on returning to practice, watching video, working on their games, and trying to get better. They poured their hearts out in this game today, but we just came up short.
“We didn’t show up today for a moral victory. We needed to play a little bit better down the stretch.”
Added Kentucky’s John Calipari: “I thought Avery (Johnson) had his team ready to go. His kids fought like heck, and we were lucky to get out alive.
“We tried to get the guards (Collin Sexton and John Petty) they recruited. With the guys they have coming back, the size and the skill; I think they’re going to be very good (next year).”
Alabama was led in scoring by Dazon Ingram with 17 points. Freshman Braxton Key chipped in 11, while Riley Norris added nine. Key and Norris each grabbed six boards, as Bama out-rebounded the Cats 33-28.
The Tide (19-14, 12-9 SEC) rolled early, as Calipari had to take a time out before the first television timeout. Four quick points by Bola Olaniyan and a nifty stick-back by Ingram had Bama up 9-2 just 3:49 into the contest. That lead grew to ten points at the 13:29 mark when Donta Hall completed an old fashioned 3-point play.
Kentucky (28-5, 18-2) battled back quickly, and with 9:48 left, Dominique Hawkins scored on a length of the court drive for an 18-17 Cats lead. That hoop followed a Tide turnover, as Kentucky turned up its defensive pressure, which led to an 11-0 UK run.
Norris answered that Hawkins drive with a corner 3-ball, and Bama led again by two. Bola Olaniyan picked up his third foul and sat the final 8:48 of the stanza.
In a half that featured one tie and three lead changes, Kentucky led 33-32 at the break. Norris missed a corner trey as the first half buzzer sounded. As was the case against a higher seed Friday, this was a winnable game. Bama stayed close with a 9-2 lead in second chance points in the half. Kentucky led 11-8 in points off turnovers at the break.
Ingram opened the second half with a lane leaner for a one-point Tide lead.
Monk converted an old fashioned 3-point play with 12:46 left and UK led 49-42.
After Derek Willis and Avery Johnson Jr. traded treys, Kentucky held a 58-54 lead heading into the 7:11 media time out.
When Key was fouled on a 3-point attempt with 3:30 left, he made but one of three and Bama trailed 64-62. Fox then scored, was fouled by Key, and after his freebie the Cats led 67-62 with 3:07 left. Fox took over down the stretch, and when he drove for another hoop, Johnson had to call time with 93 seconds left and the Tide trailing 71-63.
“I just kept making plays, and they kept putting the ball in my hands,” Fox said. “All I’ve got to do is just make the play. I had five turnovers in the first half. In the second half, I wanted to cut down the turnovers, and just run the team. That’s what I did.”
“Fox made a couple of tough shots. He’s difficult to guard, and you’ve got to give him credit,” said Tide guard Corban Collins (eight points). “He’s an electric player.”
Missed free throws mattered, but with the game-, and a possible NCAA berth on the line, Bama had no answer for Fox.
Ingram fouled out with 1:13 left, and Monk hit two from the line. The Tide’s nice Nashville run was over.
“It’s always good going against the best. You challenge yourself,” said Ingram. “My coaches and my teammates wanted me to take more shots, and I gave up a few I should have shot.”
Meanwhile, Kentucky won its tenth straight game and will face Arkansas at noon CDT (don’t forget to move clocks forward) Sunday for the tourney title.
Next up for Bama: the wait for a hopeful call from the NIT Selection Committee Sunday night. There is hope that that call, should it come, could produce at least one home game for the Tide, but seeding will determine that situation.
“We hope, because of the way we finished the season (to get that call),” Johnson said. “I’m hopeful that if our resume isn’t good enough to make the NCAA Tournament that we can get in the NIT and maybe host a game. Hopefully, we’ll get selected. We want our seniors to play more, and our underclassmen need some more experience.
“The future’s bright for Alabama. We’re excited, yet disappointed about this loss.”