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Kentucky 76, Alabama 67: Wildcats flip script to cool off Bama

No. 14 Kentucky shot better than 56 percent in the first half and rode that momentum to a 76-67 victory over Alabama at Rupp Arena.

What did we learn today?: The Nate Oats theory of winning basketball got proven correct – by the wrong team. The Wildcats have been averaging a little more than four made 3-pointers a game but connected on nine deep balls Saturday afternoon. Meanwhile the Crimson Tide was a brutal 4-for-21 from behind the arc and had to try making up the difference inside. And despite a lopsided 44-20 advantage on points in the paint and taking fine care of the basketball with just eight turnovers, Bama never truly got its bearings while having to fight and scrap for every little point, ending with its worst offensive showing since losing by an identical 76-67 score to North Carolina in November.

On the defensive end, Alabama pushed UK into taking exactly the kind of shots they wanted to allow and got burned by the hot-shooting Cats for their trouble. Bama was determined to protect the rim and force Kentucky into making jump shots. But the Wildcats hit 11 jump shots between the restricted arc under the basket and the 3-point line. Oats stuck to his guns on defense, figuring that kind of shooting couldn’t last. And again he was proven right, as Kentucky was just 10-for-31 from the field after halftime. But his team couldn’t make it pay off on the other end and Big Blue survived a late scare for the 1000th SEC win in program history.

What were the biggest concerns?: Experienced pilots talk about “sucker holes,” a small opening in the middle of unfavorable weather that can fool aviators into thinking they can safely fly through. With Kentucky pressing its defense high up on the perimeter, it created irresistible openings for Bama to drive the ball. And the Crimson Tide flew into that sucker hole time and again, only to find a mountain named Nick Richards waiting. Richards blocked five shots and grabbed 11 rebounds in addition to scoring 13 points. Bama attempted 36 layups and dunks and missed on 15 of them, while only drawing 13 fouls the entire game. Not only was the Tide ice cold behind the arc, it wasn’t getting enough 3-point attempts up either, shooting nine below its season average. Kira Lewis, Jaden Shackelford and Alex Reese only combined on four attempts from deep, missing all of them. Meanwhile Herbert Jones led Bama with 18 points, but it came at the cost of 8-for-20 showing from the field, part of Alabama’s 36.8 percent shooting day.

What was the best part of the game?: If you want an idea of what kind of respect Oats is earning eight days into his first SEC campaign, take a look at the postgame handshake with John Calipari. It started before the final buzzer and lasted long after, with the top Cat nearly pulling Oats into a bear hug. The Crimson Tide did a lot of things right on a day when bad shooting could have crushed its morale. It had twice as many offensive rebounds (16) as turnovers, and got assists on 14 of its 28 baskets. It was plus-10 in points off turnovers and also scored 16 fast-break points. Bama needs to prove it can stay focused after the initial excitement of conference play wears off and the weight of the two-month grind sets up. And Oats needs to prove he can match the top of the conference on the recruiting trail. But if those factors come together, this program can become nationally relevant in a way it hasn’t been in 15 years or more. And people well outside of Tuscaloosa are taking notice.

Who was the star?: When your worst game in two months produces 16 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots, you have truly arrived as a player. John Petty made all but one of Bama’s 3-pointers and refused to let his team wilt, even after going scoreless for the game’s first 17-plus minutes. He’s grown up and grown tough, and he’s taking his team along for the ride.

What’s next?: The Crimson Tide’s last best chance at a season-altering win arrives at Coleman Coliseum on Wednesday in the form of undefeated archrival Auburn. Tipoff with the No. 5 Tigers is scheduled for 8 p.m. Central on ESPN2.

Follow Chris DePew on Twitter @TideFansChris

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