TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - John Calipari used to love games like this.
He used to love to watch his team scuffle and struggle offensively, to grind it out defensively. As far back as his days at Massachusetts, Calipari loved seeing his team find a way to win at what he calls "gut time."
But Calipari's teams typically have won this way. And the UK coach doesn't like it as much when his Wildcats come up on the wrong side of a grinder the way they did in Tuesday's 59-55 loss to Alabama at Coleman Coliseum.
"(Alabama) shot 36 percent, 15 percent from the three, got outrebounded by 12 rebounds, listen folks, and won," Calipari said afterward. "I love that kind of game. It's a gut game."
And for a half, at least, his Cats (12-6, 3-2) looked largely gutless.
Leading by as many as 11 points in the first half, Kentucky shot 29.6 percent in the second, was outscored 35-22 after halftime and bridged the halves with a span of 11:30 without a field goal.
"We just came out of halftime too flat," said freshman Nerlens Noel, who had eight points, 13 rebounds and seven blocked shots for UK. "We wasn't being aggressive right off. That affected us. We didn't score for, like, the first eight, nine minutes of the half. That really put us down."
Alabama (12-6, 4-1) never led by more than seven points, and that margin came with 13 seconds to play in the game. The Crimson Tide trailed 33-22 with 3:34 to play in the first half and took a 35-34 lead with 13:29 to play in the second.
From there, it was anyone's game.
The Tide took it. Kentucky couldn't.
Andrew Steele's layup and free throw with 9:42 to play in the game - he got Noel in the air, scored and drew a foul - gave Alabama a 41-38 lead, and the Tide never trailed again.
Three times down the stretch, the Tide's Nick Jacobs scored on offensive rebounds - the last two when Kentucky was within a point - on missed shots that Noel either contested or blocked. Jacobs led Alabama with 14 points.
"Nerlens blocked and our guards didn't think that was their job to go get it," Calipari said. "And it got rough in there, so we didn't mix it up."
And as Alabama built its late lead, Kentucky's offense came grinding to a halt. Kyle Wiltjer, who led UK with 14 points, missed the front end of a one-and-one with 1:20 to play, and Archie Goodwin - who had seven points on 2-for-12 shooting - misfired on two wild, contested drives to the rim.
"If they're not going to call those fouls, then you need to pull up or shoot a runner," Calipari said. "I just kept telling him and he just kept going (to the rim). So I'll watch the tape to see if he got whacked or not. He may not have."
Calipari said the official was "right on it" and said Goodwin "didn't get touched," and that "I have to trust his judgment on it," though he said he would review the tape to see if Goodwin was hacked.
Asked what should be his team's bread-and-butter offense in a contested game, Calipari was quick to respond.
"We don't even know right now," he said.
What Calipari knew is that guard play would be critical on Tuesday - he'd called the matchup with Alabama "a guard's game" on Monday - and that his came up wanting when it mattered.
"Julius (Mays, who had 12 points) did what he could do, but our guard play was not near their guard play," Calipari said. "Just wasn't."
Goodwin and Ryan Harrow combined for 13 points on 5-for-24 shooting. Between them they had four assists, a steal and four turnovers. Harrow, Calipari said, "just wasn't there."
Alabama's Trevor Lacey (seven points, 2-for-9 shooting) and Trevor Releford (13 points, 4-for-10 shooting) also struggled to make baskets. But they combined for six steals and six assists.
And down the stretch, the Tide made the plays that mattered.
Calipari could respect that. His team isn't doing it enough, but he loves when a team does.
"Neither one of us played well," Calipari said. "(Alabama) gutted it. They had discipline at the end, we did not. That's sometimes what happens with a young team, but you've got to give them credit."