JOE COX: Wildcats To Face Arkansas In SEC Title Showdown After Stopping the Crimson Tide 79-74
By Joe Cox
NASHVILLE -- Facing an Alabama Crimson Tide team that was fighting for its vague NCAA Tournament hopes, Kentucky needed additional focus and intensity to complete the matchup with a victory. After an initial struggle, the Wildcats eventually rose to the challenge, aided by all-SEC guard De’Aaron Fox’s career-high 28 points, and knocked off Alabama 79-74 Saturday afternoon to advance to the SEC Tournament title game.
The Wildcats will face No. 3 seed Arkansas -- which defeated No. 7 seed Vanderbilt in another semifinal game -- on Sunday, seeking their league-high 30th SEC Tournament crown. The showdown will mark the team’s seventh appearance in the title game in coach John Calipari’s eight seasons in Lexington.
Kentucky (28-5) survived and advanced, mostly on the basis of big games from Fox and fellow All-SEC guard Malik Monk. Monk, who led the SEC in scoring in the regular season, was held to two points in UK’s quarterfinal win over Georgia. But, on Saturday, he had 20 points, and was especially sharp in the first half, when Kentucky shot 57 percent as a team.
Fox shouldered much of the load down the stretch, picking up 19 of his points in the game’s second half. He was especially sharp at the foul line, where he drained 11 of 15 attempts. Fox added five rebounds and two assists to his day’s work.
It was Alabama who began the day on fire, jumping to 9-2 lead, which the Tide stretched to 17-7 with 13:29 to play in the first half. Alabama was led by guard Dazon Ingram, who had 17 points. Freshman forward Braxton Key added 11, but was held to 4-for-15 shooting.
Kentucky responded in part by picking up its defensive intensity. Senior guard Dominique Hawkins hounded Tide guards relentlessly. Hawkins also scored seven points in his 29 minutes of playing time, but his defense set the tone for Kentucky to chip away at Alabama’s lead. The Wildcats held a 33-32 halftime lead.
Kentucky stretched the lead to 51-42 on a pair of Isaiah Briscoe free throws with 11:24 to play. But Alabama, playing its third game in 48 hours, did not back down. The Tide rallied to within a single point at 58-57 with 6:49 to play, but they never grabbed the lead.
Calipari was pleased to get the victory, and credited his team’s unity for the win.
“The team is starting to come together and understand [that] numbers don’t matter on a team like this,” said the UK mentor. “It may be your game, it may be another guy’s game. That was good for us to see.”
Calipari also praised Monk and freshman Wenyen Gabriel for getting up early and coming to the arena early Saturday morning.
“I knew I had to get up and execute for the team,” Monk said.
Also aiding Monk in the effort was freshman forward Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, who narrowly missed a second consecutive double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds.
The SEC championship game on Sunday will begin at 1 p.m. (ET) on ESPN. And then Kentucky will await the announcement of its NCAA path later on Sunday evening. Most media speculation projects the Wildcats as a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books, and his most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games), is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.