basketball Edit

Shorthanded Kentucky rallies for gut-check win over Bama

Kentucky guard Kellen Grady handled the ball against defensive pressure from Alabama's Jaden Shackelford.
Kentucky guard Kellen Grady handled the ball against defensive pressure from Alabama's Jaden Shackelford. (Jeff Drummond/Cats Illustrated)

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky has played very few games during the 45-year history of Rupp Arena in which fans left the venue pleasantly surprised that the Wildcats were victorious.

Saturday may have marked one of those rare occasions.

Playing without its starting backcourt of Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington and trailing by as many as 13 points to a hot-shooting Alabama squad, No. 4 Kentucky showed its resiliency in rallying for a 90-81 win over the Crimson Tide.

All five starters played more than 35 minutes for the Wildcats, who lost Wheeler to a wrist injury and Washington to an ankle injury during Tuesday's loss at Tennessee. Grad seniors Kellen Grady and Davion Mintz took up the slack in the backcourt, combining for 32 points, five assists, and just two turnovers.

Grady scored a season-high 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting from the field and a 7-of-9 day from beyond the 3-point arc.

“Incredibly gratifying," Grady said of the victory. "I am so proud of our effort. I mean look, we had five guys play 36 or more minutes, and some guys didn’t start great, and showed a lot of resilience and finished strong. I mean, being down two guards and having to adjust with like 36 hours of preparation and figuring out how we were going to play today, and you know we scored 90 points without our two primary lead guards, so just the resiliency that we showed."

Kentucky (22-5, 11-3 SEC) also got another double-double by national player of the year candidate Oscar Tshiebwe, who scored 21 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. Keion Brooks followed with 18 points and eight rebounds, while Jacob Toppin added 13 points and six boards.

The Cats have played only 12 games at "full strength" this season due to an assortment of minor injuries and illness.

“In past games, when players were injured, people were questioning the depth of this team, and it just shows how good of a team we are," Toppin said. "... That was big for not just everyone to see that we are deep, but it's big for us to know that we have the players to play when people are either injured or out.

"It says a lot about this team. It says a lot about our grit, and it says a lot about how bad we want to win games."

Ironically, UK coach John Calipari used a video clip from Alabama's football program in preparation for the matchup with the Crimson Tide.

"This game was doing a different thing," he said. "Now you're shorthanded, and guys have to step up. I showed the guys a tape that was done of Nick Saban, Coach Saban, talking about being ready for your opportunity... So when you do get a chance, you're ready to go."

Said Grady: "It was an incredible message. A very candid message."

No. 25 Alabama (17-10, 7-7 SEC) hit nine of its first 12 attempts from 3-point range to take a double-digit lead in the first half but made only five of its next 28 as UK pulled away.

Kentucky finished the game at 53.2% from the field, while Alabama cooled off to 43.5% The Cats were 9-of-14 from 3-point range, held a 39-32 advantage on the glass, and committed only seven turnovers despite playing without its two primary ball handlers.

Senior guard Keon Ellis led the Crimson Tide with a game-high 28 points, including a 7-for-11 day from the arc. Jaden Shackelford added 18 for Bama.

“This is a really disappointing loss," Alabama coach Nate Oats said. "We wasted a good shooting night. Shack and Keon, those two guys combined to go 12-23 from 3 and we kind of wasted it.

"We kept telling them from the start that our defense wasn’t going to be good enough to win the game and that’s what ended up happening. 1.48 at the end of the game was what we gave up defensively. Our offense was 100-percent good enough to win the game, but we couldn’t get stops when we needed to."

*****

In this "Rapid Recap" feature, we touch on some quick-hitters from the UK victory...

KEY MOMENT:

Trailing 46-34 late in the first half, Kentucky went on a 13-0 run to end the period. Four different Cats scored during the spurt, which was capped by a corner 3 by Kellen Grady that sent an already raucous Rupp Arena into a complete frenzy. Alabama never fully recovered. The extended run eventually reached 40-12 as Kentucky led 74-58 with 10:50 remaining in the game. The Crimson Tide never got closer than seven the rest of the way.

GAME BALL:

Kellen Grady, Kentucky -- Playing more of the combo role he often filled during his time at Davidson, Grady delivered the dominant performance the Cats needed on this day. He's been an unselfish star for UK this season, but playing without Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington, the Cats needed him hunting shots aggressively like he did today. He matched his season high of 16 field goal attempts set against Mississippi State on Jan. 25.

BY THE NUMBERS:

1st - Time this season that Kentucky has started a lineup of Davion Mintz, Kellen Grady, Jacob Toppin, Keion Brooks, and Oscar Tshiebwe.

21 - Double-doubles for UK's Oscar Tshiebwe, including nine in a row, the first UK player to accomplish that since Jim Andrews had 10 consecutive double-doubles in the 1972-73 season.

22 - Second-chance points for the Cats.

116-40 - Kentucky's lead in the all-time series with Alabama, including a 59-11 mark in Lexington. The Cats swept this year's regular-season matchups, winning 90-81 and 66-55.

191 - Minutes played by the UK starters out of 200 possible. Toppin and Grady each played 39 minutes, while Mintz (38), Brooks (37), and Tshiebwe (35) also logged heavy playing time.

QUOTABLE:

"Kellen Grady played out of his mind." -- UK forward Jacob Toppin on the Cats' grad senior guard.

UP NEXT:

Kentucky returns to action on Wednesday at Rupp Arena against LSU. Tipoff is slated for 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. It's a rematch of the Cats' 65-60 loss to the Tigers on Jan. 4 in Baton Rouge. LSU (19-7, 7-6 SEC) is playing today at South Carolina.