LEXINGTON, Ky. --- For a few hours, the door was open for Kentucky to get back into the Southeastern Conference race.
After watching Arkansas and Vanderbilt upset East Division leaders Florida and Georgia earlier in the day, the Wildcats had a golden opportunity to gain ground Saturday as they played host to Alabama at Rupp Arena. But the door was slammed shut in alarming fashion as the Crimson Tide led for all but about three minutes en route to a 64-61 victory.
Eighth-ranked Kentucky (13-5) lost for the third time at home this season and dropped to 3-3 in SEC play. No. 14 Alabama (17-3) improved to 5-1 in the conference and strengthened its hold on the top spot in the West.
"We had a chance to pick up a game, and to lose at home is a terrible, terrible blow," said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, whose team is playing catchup to the Bulldogs and Gators after starting league play at 0-2.
"Now our backs are against the wall again."
Alabama coach Mark Gottfried praised his team for chalking up its second key win on the road. Ten days ago, the Tide won 77-72 at Georgia, signaling a change in the trend that has plagued them in recent years.
"We have some great kids who have been on the road and not won, and that hurts," Gottfried said. "I think they've taken some pride knowing that it's going to be loud and that teams are going to make runs at us... We have to answer that, and we did that tonight. This is something our players should be very proud of."
"It feels great to be a part of this, to walk into Rupp Arena and walk out with a victory," said Alabama swingman Rod Grizzard, who was only 3-for-15 from the field, but hit seven of 10 free throws to finish with 14 points. "It's great for our team confidence to come in and do something like this."
Alabama led by as much as seven in the first half, but Kentucky closed with a 10-2 run to take a 31-29 lead into the break.
The Tide then opened the second half with nine straight points to regain control. Erwin Dudley's free throws at the 11:27 mark gave them their biggest lead of the night, 44-35, as Kentucky managed only one field goal in the first eight and a half minutes.
It was the third major offensive drought of the night for the Cats, who missed their first eight shots of the game and scored only two points in the opening five minutes of play. Later in the first half, they found themselves stuck on 17 points from the 8:31 mark to the 3:42 mark.
But Kentucky found a way to claw back into the game as Chuck Hayes and Erik Daniels sandwiched 3-pointers by Gerald Fitch and Tayshaun Prince with inside baskets. Daniels' tip-in with 8:41 remaining cut the margin to 46-45.
The margin fluctuated between four and one until Prince converted a three-point play with 1:49 left to put the Cats ahead 58-57.
Alabama countered with a driving layup by Mo Williams, who used a pick to lose Fitch and failed to encounter any secondary defense on his way to the basket.
"We finally get up one, and we give up a layup," said a dejected Smith. "I don't know what Gerald was doing there. He just let him go to the basket, and I don't know where our big guys were."
Kentucky never regained the lead, despite numerous opportunities. Prince missed inside at the 1:05 mark, and Dudley converted one of two free throws on the opposite end to make it 60-58.
With just under 30 seconds left, UK called timeout to set up a play. It failed miserably, though, as Prince passed up an easy eight-footer in the lane to pass to Keith Bogans. He, in turn, gave up the ball to Marquis Estill, who seemed to get bumped too far under the basket and had to get rid of the ball in desperation. His pass intended for Hawkins in the lane was broken up by Alabama's Antoine Pettway, and Grizzard was fouled intentionally after picking up the loose ball.
"Even with them not playing well, we still had chances," Smith said. "When that happens, we need somebody to step up and take charge."
Grizzard hit two free throws to put the Tide up 62-58 with 18.4 seconds remaining. Williams then hit one of two free throws on the ensuing possession to make it a five-point game and essentially seal the win.
After a Fitch 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds left, UK had a final chance as Grizzard missed two free throws, but a hail mary pass was intercepted as the buzzer sounded.
"We couldn't get any consistency... any consistent scoring, any consistent movement or any consistent defense," Smith said of the Cats, who shot a woeful 39 percent from the field and missed 23 of 30 from long range. "We got people in position to score. We just couldn't put the ball in the basket."
Kentucky finished with almost 14 minutes of scoreless streaks during the game. Normal stars Prince and Bogans combined for just 19 points on 7-of-25 shooting. The Cats' starters managed only 12 field goals on the night.
Dudley led Alabama with 16 points and seven rebounds. Williams and Pettway each followed Grizzard with 13. The Tide shot only 42 percent from the field, but held a commanding 21-6 edge at the foul line.
It marked Alabama's first win at Rupp Arena since 1989 and only the eighth time ever in 56 trips to Lexington.