Furious Finish Not Obscuring Issues That Made It Necessary
The fight down the stretch is what John Calipari is looking for.
It just wasn’t enough.
“We just gotta play like that for all 40 minutes,” PJ Washington said. “We just gotta know the game plan and know we’re in on both sides of the floor and just be aggressive.”
That was what landed Kentucky in a hole at Alabama, that the Crimson Tide was the aggressor for too much of the first 37 minutes. After a back-and-forth first half that ended with No. 14/13 UK leading by two, Alabama surged ahead in the second half and had apparent control with an 11-point lead with barely three minutes left.
That’s when Kentucky turned up the defensive heat behind freshman point guard Ashton Hagans, eventually closing to within one point in the final five seconds. After Alabama made one of two free throws, Hagans then received a pass at midcourt and found a trailing Tyler Herro. Herro’s would-be game-winning 3 missed, cementing a 77-75 loss for Kentucky in its SEC opener.
“It’ll happen if you come off starting slow in the second half,” Hagans said. “We started off slow in the second half so we were trying to pick it up at the end, trying to press. We were trying to fight and we all came together in the last minute. We just missed the big shot at the end.”
Calipari would have loved to have seen that big shot fall, but he also said the Wildcats would have deserved to lose the game anyway after that slow start after halftime.
“The biggest thing is the start of the second half I was just so disappointed,” Calipari said. “Had to sub two guys a minute and a half into the second half. What was your warmup? What did you do? Why weren’t you ready for a dogfight? You had to play the first half and know what this game is.”
Coach Cal was also left ruing UK’s ineffectiveness in its press, a feeling that was intensified by how well it worked in the final minutes. That press forced Alabama into five turnovers in the final three minutes, including three in the final 51 seconds, after it didn’t work earlier.
“We never got into the press,” Calipari said. “We had guys jog back. I’m like, wait a minute. We could not press until the end of the game. What I told my staff at half is that’s on me that we gotta make this stuff more live and make them understand that when you’re pressing you can’t kind of jog to your spot because the other team is gonna bring it quick and try to beat you.”
Now, Calipari is proud of the way his team finished. He just wants his team to learn lessons from what got them in a hole to begin with.
“I gotta give Alabama credit,” Calipari said. “Avery’s (Johnson) done a great job. These guys played their butts off and fought and did whatever they had to to win and celebrated and all the good stuff. We’ll go lick our wounds and get on to a game we gotta play on Tuesday.”
That game will come against Texas A&M. This time, UK will have the advantage of playing at home, but Washington knows having gone through an entire SEC slate to expect the Aggies to deliver the same kind of effort Alabama did.
“That’s everybody we play,” Washington said. “We’re used to that and we just gotta come out on both ends of the floor. I feel like if we can do that, we can get some easy wins and get back in a good record in conference.”