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January 18, 2011TUSCALOOSA _ The University of Alabama men's basketball team had seen this over and over again.
During Kentucky's last visit to Coleman Coliseum two years ago, the lead went back and forth until the Wildcats made their free throws down the stretch to pull out a 61-51 victory.
When they last saw each other in the quarterfinals of the 2010 Southeastern Conference Tournament the Crimson Tide led by 11 points in the first half only to see a heartbreaking season-ending 73-67 final score.
Even late Tuesday night, when the team managers squared off in an up-tempo game that featured former players from both sides, Alabama couldn't keep Kentucky from pulling away when the game was on the line.
Not this time, and not like all the late losses last season or Saturday's defeat at Arkansas.
Although Alabama came oh-so-close to squandering a 20-point lead, the No. 12 Wildcats couldn't complete the comeback as the Crimson Tide held on for a dramatic, and narrow, 68-66 victory before a full house of 14,859 fans.
The players even celebrated with some of them before leaving the court and brought a smile to the face of Coach Anthony Grant.
"It's probably an understatement to say it's a great win for our team," he said, as Alabama improved to 11-7 overall, 3-1 in the SEC and 10-0 at home.
"He smiled pretty hard today," junior forward JaMychal Green said about his coach. "Everyone was, it was a great win."
It also nearly ran the full spectrum of emotions as for three-fourths of the game Alabama out-hustled and out-worked Kentucky (14-4, 2-2 SEC), as evidenced by the Tide's 41-34 advantage in rebounds. At one point of the first half it enjoyed a 9-0 run, with contributions being made by more than the usual suspects like Green, who had a game-high 18 points and 11 rebounds.
For example, although senior forward Chris Hines isn't known for his shooting, he hit a jump shot and had seven points, seven rebounds, a blocked shot and a steal at the break when Alabama was up 37-30.
"That's what it's going to take for us to win games, for everyone to be on the same page and go all out," Green said.
The Tide extended the lead by opening the second half with a 15-2 run that had Kentucky coach John Calipari calling time outs left and right, but with senior guard Charvez Davis hitting his third 3-pointer, sophomore forward Tony Mitchell throwing down another powerful dunk and Green connecting on another crowd-raising alley-oop, Alabama had all the momentum.
That is until sophomore forward Andrew Steele's 3-pointer with 11:31 remaining for a 59-43 lead. While Kentucky started hitting its shots, Alabama committed seven turnovers and had a blocked shot before making another basket, during which the 59-43 lead all but evaporated.
With Hines and freshman guard Trevor Releford both cramping up, and the turnovers suddenly matched by fouls, Kentucky came within a point three times in the final 3:29 but never retook the lead.
"The biggest play, I thought, was Green was inside didn't get the shot to fall and tips it in," Kentucky coach John Calipari said of Alabama's lone field goal after Steele's 3. "He wanted it more than you did."
He also added: "They manhandled us;" "We just have young guys, who made (bad) errors today;" and "We had no business being in the game the way we played."
Kentucky's final chances in the final seconds were derailed when the Wildcats crossed midcourt only to have Davis knock the ball loose to sophomore guard Ben Eblen, who after being fouled made a free throw to complete the scoring. On the final play ("Two-point-five seconds is an eternity," Grant said), the coach kept an extra man closer to the basket instead of putting him on the inbounder to try and prevent a long pass. It worked.
"It's a big win," Green said. "It's probably the biggest win of the season so far because people doubted us as a team and we're showing them that we can play anybody and we're a legitimate team. It's just a great win for the program."
Green notched his fourth double-double in ten games while Mitchell had 15 points and seven rebounds.
In contrast, Kentucky essentially went with a six-man rotation, of which four reached double-digits led by 17 points and nine rebounds by junior guard Deandre Liggins.
"We're practicing tomorrow," Calipari said. "I was going to give them off, but tomorrow will be brutal.
"They just have to know there are things I will not accept. But I don't want to take anything away from Alabama. They deserved to win."