For the first time all season, Coleman Coliseum felt like a real college basketball venue. Crimson t-shirts with the popular theme of ‘Built by Bama' hung over every seat. The 15,383-seat arena was at full capacity. Every fan was on their feet for the final minutes.
Alabama relished the fiery, sellout crowd and pulled out a 59-55 win over defending national champion Kentucky Tuesday night. Now the Crimson Tide (12-6, 4-1 SEC) stands alone in third place in the SEC. Only Florida and Ole Miss have better records (both are 4-0).
For the first 20 minutes, Kentucky (12-6, 3-2) owned the court. Freshman shot-block sensation Nerlens Noel had four swats, five rebounds and a steal, while sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer added 11 points as UK took a 33-24 lead at the break.
But in the second half, the Tide tightened up their defense, tuned down the press, and came out with more intensity on offense. They went on an 11-1 run to start, while Kentucky couldn't buy a bucket, going 0-11 from the field until Ryan Harrow made a layup with 12:04 to play. By then, Bama only trailed 36-35 and Coleman was rocking.
Alabama head coach Anthony Grant said he felt like his team was too pumped up to start and the goal at halftime was to calm them down.
"Watching the first half, the emotion got the best of us," he said. "I know that sounds really simple, but I felt emotion made us get some breakdowns defensively and made us get out of rhythm offensively."
Though usually a full-court press team, Grant also said they made a commitment to back off of it in the second half.
"In the first half, they got eight points against the press," Grant said. "So we modified some things that we did with the press in terms of giving them opportunities to get behind us and get easy baskets. Other than that, I think our guys just did a better job."
After settling in, Alabama outscored the Cats in the second half 35-22.
Alabama's frontcourt--sophomore forward Nick Jacobs, who led the Tide with 14 points, 10 of which came in the second half, and Junior center Moussa Gueye, who had five blocks, two in the final 30 seconds--had a huge impact on the game.
"I thought they were outstanding," Grant said. "And don't just look at their numbers. I just thought the awareness, the hustle plays that we got out of both of them, the plays that won't show up, the rotations that we got, the alertness level was really, really high.
"The team needed that today."
Wiltjer led UK with 14 points, but only scored three in the final 20 minutes. Noel had a big game, adding eight points, 13 rebounds, seven blocks and a steal, but it wasn't enough.
"They fought and had great confidence and they played to win," Calipari said of Alabama. "We played not to lose."
More than any second half adjustment, Alabama won because it played with heart. The Tide's final stats were lousy and should have cost them the game, but gutsy plays—like getting four offensive boards in the final three minutes—clinched the victory.
"When I was coaching at UMass, I loved it when my team shot 34-35 percent and then won," Calipari said. "[Alabama] shot 36.8 percent, 15 percent from the 3, got outrebounded by 12 rebounds (44-32)—listen folks—and won. I love that kind of game. It's a gut game. It had nothing to do with anything else.
"Neither one of us played well. They gutted it. They had discipline at the end. We did not."
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