Alabama got a typical Ron Steele game to take a 72-61 win over Kentucky. The Crimson Tide, ranked 25th in the nation going into the game, had lost back-to-back road games to Ole Miss and Florida. The victory Saturday improved Bama's record to 19-7 overall and even the Tide's Southeastern Conference record at 6-6.
The Wildcats have now lost three consecutive games—to Florida, Tennessee and Alabama—to fall to 18-8 overall and 7-5 in SEC play. Kentucky was ranked 20th going into the game.
Alabama has had an under-achieving season against a generally weak schedule and a team that earlier this year was solidly in the nation's top ten and being talked about as a Final Four team is now fighting to make the NCAA Tournament field. The triumph over Kentucky is Bama's best win of the year.
The Crimson Tide, which is still in contention for the SEC Western Division championship, has another tough task ahead. Alabama will play at Tennessee Wednesday with tipoff at 8 p.m. EST (7 p.m. central). The game will be regionally televised.
Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried wouldn't consider Saturday's game as being in the "must win" category. "We're trying to concentrate on each game, and become the best team we can be," he said. "We want to have a good practice Monday and then Tuesday get ready to play Tennessee."
Gottfried credited defense for the win over Kentucky. "Our defense has not been consistent, but the last five or six games we have guarded better," he said. "We're not there yet, but we're better."
He did want to talk about his senior guard, Ronald Steele. "Look at that line," said Gottfried, reading the final statistics. "He had 15 points, seven assists and only two turnovers. We haven't seen a line like that. Hopefully, he's coming around a little bit."
Steele, a pre-season All-America, has had a sub-standard season owing to well-publicized ankle and knee injuries. As he always does, Steele refused to excuse his play because of injuries. "Everyone is beat up and injured this time of year," he said.
Steele hit four of seven field goal attempts, including three-of-four three-pointers, and also hit four-of-five free throws. It was at crunch time that Steele was at his best, nailing a three-pointer after the Wildcats had pulled back to within two points with under eight minutes to play. He also hit a pair of free throws inside two-and-a-half-minutes to play to expand the Alabama lead to eight points at 62-54.
Steele was also the primary ball-handler against an intense Kentucky second half press that brought the Wildcats back into contention in the second half. Alabama had opened up an early 15-2 lead and had a 30-22 halftime lead.
The Steele three-pointer was followed a few minutes later by a trey from freshman Justin Tubbs, which put the Tide up by seven. Tubbs also had an important tough layup off a steal and finished with nine points. It followed two clutch free throws by another true freshman, Demetrius Jemison.
But it was another veteran, Richard Hendrix, who applied killing points. With five-and-a-half minutes to play he muffed a short shot and Kentucky got the rebound, but Hendrix snatched the ball back for a jam. Moments later he went under the basket with a reverse layup to push the Tide lead to 57-46. Hendrix led Alabama with 16 points and nine rebounds.
Steele said that Gottfried had emphasised "Finish the game. Finish the game."
Gottfried said, "We had played pretty well for 36 minutes in the last two games, but then didn't play good enough in the last four minutes to win those games."
Kentucky had an eight-point run that took less than two minutes to cut Bama's lead from 45-35 to 45-43 before Steele's three-pointer. The game was never tied and Kentucky never had the lead.
Hendrix said, "When they gave us their best shot, we were able to bounce back. We stayed poised. We made our free throws. We handled the ball well in the backcourt."
Junior guard Mykal Riley came off the bench to supply good defense as well as contribute 12 points.
Hendrix said that he considered the game "must win." He said, "We want to have the mindset that we can get to the NCAA Tournament by winning every game. We don't want to be thinking that we can lose one game or we can lose two games and still make it. Our mindset is to win them all."
Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith gave Alabama credit, noting particularly the importance of Steele's performance down the stretch. He said, "Alabama has been up and down. It was a big win for them."
Alabama hit 22 of 49 field goal attempts (44.9 per cent) while holding Kentucky to 21-52 (40.4 per cent). The Tide made 8-17 three-pointers (47.1 per cent), the Wildcats 5-22 (22.7 per cent). Bama was good on 20-28 free throws (71.4 per cent), Kentucky 14-21 (66.7 per cent).
Alabama had a big rebounding edge at halftime (19-12), but Kentucky was dominant in the second half on the boards and the Tide's final edge was only 33-32. Bama had only 12 turnovers and Kentucky scored only eight points off those miscues. The Wildcats had 17 turnovers and Bama exploited them for 18 points.
Kentucky outscored Alabama in the paint by a bucket, 24 points to 22, and the Wildcats had 14 second chance points, Bama 10. Alabama had eight fast break points, Kentucky only four.