Talk about an exciting game. This one was wire-to-wire all the way to the end of the match, with the highest lead by either team being 6 points until Alabama started to widen the gap a little in the final 8 minutes.
The Alabama offense started hot, scoring on 6 of their first 7 possessions. They were passing the ball and attacking the lane in such a dazzling display of beauty that visions of Grantsketball were finally starting to be erased from my memory. Unfortunately, the Kentucky offense was having just as much success. Reid Travis was feasting on the interior of the Tide defense and racked up 8 quick points in the first 6 minutes of the game, all by overpowering Alabama defenders in the paint.
Once the Kentucky defense had been attacked up the middle and forced to condense, Tevin Mack started to show off some of the offensive capabilities we’ve been waiting to see since he transferred. He hit three 3-pointers in quick succession to get the Tide up to a 3 point lead (how many times can I say three in one sentence?), and Coach Avery Johnson responded to his sudden hot hand by sending him, along with all the other starters aside from Dazon Ingram, to the bench. Brilliant.
Alex Reese did hit a three pointer of his own when he came into the game, but this new arrangement of players didn’t have any other scores for 7 minutes until Herb Jones came back in and got a score and an assist on back to back possessions. Then, Mack came back into the game and hit three more 3-point shots in 4 possessions as the crowd in Coleman went absolutely nuts. If you’re counting, he was up to 6/6 on three point shots and Alabama retook the lead. The teams traded a few more baskets and free throws before the high-scoring first half ended with the Tide losing 38-40.
The Tide opened the half with 8 unanswered points, but, as was the case all night, the Wildcats always broke a Tide run with an answering three pointer or massive dunk of their own. The teams traded points back and forth into the low 50s before Alabama made another run with 10 minutes left in the game. Alabama pulled away to an 8 point gap, and the two teams started trading shots again... but this time it was with Alabama alternating between a two and three posession lead, rather than the two teams swapping the lead back and forth.
The Tide led by as much as 10, but a late effort in the waning minutes of the game saw Kentucky race back as they did everything they could to stall the clock. In the final minute, Alabama really struggled to inbound the ball and had a couple of turnovers (with questionable uncalled fouls, I might add) that very nearly spoiled the whole thing. Fortunately, Dazon Ingram and John Petty made just enough free throws to keep the lead and the Tide defense shut down Kentucky’s final tying attempt at the buzzer to win the game 77-75.
Tevin Mack was the hero of the first half and led the team with 22 points. He was much quieter in the 2nd half, but still did his best this game to prove he earned a starting spot and wanted to keep it.
The other 4 starters— Kira Lewis Jr., Dazon Ingram, Donta Hall, and Herb Jones— all made double-digits as well, scoring 12, 11, 11, and 10, respectively. Hall led the team with 10 rebounds to add another double-double to his career, while Jones was probably the most important overall player, adding 8 rebounds and 6 assists (plus a couple more drawn charges) to his stats.
Dazon Ingram did most of his damage where he usually does— drawing fouls and making free throws. He was 6 for 6 at the free throw line, though his 5 turnovers led the team.
John Petty came off the bench this game, and led the bench with 6 points. Despite his low scoring output, he actually had a really good game off the stat sheets. He made a few nice plays under the basket and did a lot of ball handling in traffic to keep the offense rolling. Most impressively, though, were his team-leading two blocks. Both were emphatic volleyball spikes under the basket when a Kentucky player tried to post up on him, and he just used length to slam the ball back down into the floor. Petty’s focus and development on using his height under the basket has been one of my favorite parts of this season so far, even if he isn’t getting quite as many points as he did last year.
This really was a complete game played by Alabama, aside from the 7 minute drought in the 1st half when nearly the entire bench was inexplicably subbed in at the same time. They struggled on interior defense early in the game, but eventually settled into it to slow down the Wildcats and force them outside. The offense was explosive and attacked the basket from the paint, from transition, and from three point range with a solid balance that I’m still not sure wasn’t actually just a dream I had. It really was a team effort in scoring, with five different players all in double digits
Though Kentucky may not be the elite juggernaut this year, they are still Kentucky and the #13 team in the nation. It was Avery Johnson’s first win over the Wildcats, and the students really turned out at the game and made Coleman Coliseum rock, despite the fact that classes haven’t started yet, there was an Army All-American Game going on at the same time, and the football team is playing for a National Championship in California in two days.
This was a huge win for this season and the Alabama basketball program in general. Now they will have to channel it into continued better play, and not fall flat in the next game. That is always one of the most difficult hurdles for a coach to take his team from talented to truly successful.
Buckle up, and Roll Tide!