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By LARRY VAUGHT
The numbers were ugly — 36.8 percent shooting from the field, 15.4 percent shooting from 3-point range and a 44-32 rebounding deficit. Yet Alabama overcame those numbers Tuesday to beat visiting Kentucky 59-55.
How did that happen? Simple according to Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“It is a gut game. It has nothing to do with anything else,” said Calipari after UK blew a 14-point first half lead and lost. “Neither one of us played well. They gutted it out. They had discipline at the end and we did not. Sometimes that happens with a young team.”
Calipari cited his team’s lack of discipline time after time during his postgame remarks.
“We didn’t have the discipline to know we are grinding this game out. It’s not about me making a shot or play. It’s about it. It’s all part of the growth of a young team,” Calipari said.
Growth? It’s hard to see any growth in the way UK played the second half against Alabama when it scored only 22 points and went almost eight minutes to open the half without a field goal. The more physical Alabama got, the more UK seemed to back down.
“You have to give Alabama credit. They fought and had great confidence and they played to win. We played not to lose, which young guys do on the road at times,” Calipari said. “Everybody thought what would hurt us was the press, but it helped us. Then (Alabama) just said, ‘Don’t even press, we are just going to lock them in to a half-court set and be physical and if they drive, go body-to-body.’
“They ran and got good shots and got second shots that we didn’t. They had nine offensive rebounds, but three were very late, tip-in plays that killed us. You stop them, and they miss it, but they tip it in. Tough game, but we still haven’t totally bought in — individual players haven’t. Obviously late in the game, we took chances, we left our feet, we fouled and we let them get offensive rebounds. It’s all that we talked about late in the game — give them one tough shot , do not foul, do not leave your feet.”
Calipari admitted it was a “step back” for his team after an impressive road win at Auburn on Saturday.
Calipari was particularly critical of his team’s guard play. UK guards combined to go 10-for-34 from the field. Archie Goodwin missed 10 of 12 shots and Ryan Harrow nine of 12. Julius Mays was 4-for-8 overall — all four goals were 3-pointers — and Jarrod Polson made one of two shots.
Most of the misses by Harrow and Goodwin were on drives to the basket — both shot only one 3-pointer — and many were wild, off-balance shots.
“He (Harrow) just wasn’t there. Tough game for him,” Calipari said. “The second half at Auburn, he played well. We didn’t have it here.”
What about Goodwin? Apparently Calipari wanted him to continue to force shots inside because he played 35 minutes.
“Our guard play was – Julius Mays did what he could do – but our guard play was not near their guard play, it just wasn’t. We reverted back to just throwing it to Kyle Wiltjer (late in the game) in the post to try to keep the game close, to give us a chance to win, and we had our chances. If they are not going to call those [fouls], then Archie needed to pull up or shoot around them,” Calipari said. “I just kept telling him, and he just kept going.
“So I will watch the tape to see if he got whacked or not, and he may not have. The official was right on it and said he didn’t get touched — bodies were flying — but he said he didn’t get touched, and I have to trust his judgment on it.”
He also faulted his guards for not rebounding better. Goodwin grabbed seven missed shots, but Mays had only three boards and Harrow one. Polson did have three boards in just 14 minutes.
“Our guards did not think it was their job to go get it. It got rough in there and we didn’t mix it up,” Calipari said.
The coach faulted Nerlens Noel — eight points, 13 rebounds, seven blocks and one steal in 39 minutes — for his late play, too. He said he tried to make steals late in the game he shouldn’t have and left his feet to block shots he shouldn’t have tried to block that led to follow baskets for Alabama.
“Again, you guys and they panicked a little bit. We were not able to settle them down,” Calipari said in his postgame press conference.
Yet this is one game where the coach also has to shoulder some of the blame for the loss. Wiltjer was 5-for-8 from the field and had 11 points in the first half. In the second half, he got two shots and didn’t get his only field goal for almost 18 minutes. Calipari was content to watch his team flounder with Harrow and Goodwin, who combined to take 15 of UK’s 27 second half shots, driving and missing and then doing it again.
It wasn’t until late in the game that Calipari tried to isolate Wiltjer down low. But why wait to go back to Wiltjer with the offense struggling the way it was?
“He is a good low post player,” Calipari said of Wiltjer. “He has good moves down there. Again, we were just hoping for anything to keep the game close.”
Keep the game close? How about hoping for points to start the half to keep the lead and not let Alabama take all the momentum? Why wait until desperation time to go back to Wiltjer?
“I am proud of how he played. He just played too many minutes (35),” Calipari said.
Calipari again noted that his players have not totally “bought in” to what they must do. Again, isn’t that his job to get them to buy in? Alabama certainly did for coach Anthony Grant.
“I think we got hurt in the first half in transition. We had some breakdowns defensively. Offensively, I just felt like we were out of rhythm. It was more of just guys trying to do a little bit too much from an offensive standpoint,” Grant said.
“Nerlens Noel was phenomenal at protecting the rim, tremendous timing on his blocks, so I thought that our guys adjusted in the second half and were able to make some plays around the rim in the second half that we couldn’t in the first half. The thing I’m most proud of is the things that we focused on at the half in terms of what we needed to do from the defensive standpoint. They dominated the glass in the first half. I think we played them even in the second half on the backboard. So just the adjustments and the understanding of what we needed to do to win the game.”
And that’s why a team with some ugly statistics was able to gut out a win over a team that didn’t make the adjustments/plays it took to win.