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January 21, 2012

Late free throws help Cats escape Alabama

Given its preference, No. 2 Kentucky still wants to play fast, wants to put the pedal to the metal.

But the Wildcats proved again on Saturday that when a grind-it-out game gets close, you don't want to meddle with their mettle.

The Cats held off Alabama 77-71 Saturday at Rupp Arena, winning their 46th consecutive home game and improving to 4-1 this season in games decided by single-digit margins.

"We've got a will to win," forward Anthony Davis said. "We don't like losing."

The Wildcats (19-1, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) enforced that will Saturday even as Alabama (13-6, 2-3) pushed them to the brink of an upset. Coming off a 69-59 home loss to Vanderbilt, the Crimson Tide took it to the Cats.

Alabama, the SEC's worst three-point shooting team at 26.9 percent entering the game, hit 5-of-7 from long range. The Tide shot 65 percent from the floor in the second half against a Kentucky defense that leads the league in field-goal percentage defense.

But the Cats led for all but two minutes and 13 seconds of the game. And when the Tide got close late, UK made the plays that mattered.

"I thought our guys certainly gave the effort and played with the passion as a coach that you want to see," Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. "Unfortunately, we weren't able to make the plays that we needed to make down the stretch to win the game. Give Kentucky credit, they had a lot of guys that stepped up and made some plays to allow them to come out with the victory."

Offensively, most of those plays came from the free-throw line.

The Wildcats won despite not scoring a field goal in the game's final 6:56, and they did it with free-throw shooting that early in the game seemed unlikely. UK was 4-for-11 from the line in the first half, but went 23-of-29 in the second, including eight for its last eight.

In Kentucky's first 13 trips to the line Saturday with a chance to make two free throws, it came away with two points six times. It got a pair of points on all eight trips in the final 54.7 seconds.

"We made clutch foul shots and plays at the end," guard Doron Lamb said.

But it wasn't just sharp shooting from the line that helped UK remain undefeated at Rupp Arena under John Calipari.

There was also Davis' key block on Charles Hankerson with 4.5 seconds to play, a swat that Davis corralled before he was fouled. He sank two free throws to put the game out of reach.

Davis was one of three different players who had 2-for-2 trips to the line in the closing minute. Darius Miller made all four of his foul shots in that stretch. Marquis Teague was 2-for-2.

"We've got a lot of players that can do a lot of things at the end of games," Lamb said. "We've got a lot of talent on this team. It doesn't matter who's got the ball at the end of the game; we can all make plays."

Kentucky's talent was evident in its balance on Saturday. Terrence Jones had 15 points to lead six players in double figures. Lamb added 14, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 13, Miller and Davis 11 each and Teague 10.

Even with all that talent, UK remains vulnerable to an upset.

Alabama followed the blueprint for knocking off the Cats - physical play and a controlled pace - and the Tide had a chance down the stretch. Forward JaMychal Green scored 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, and guard Trevor Releford had all 17 of his points in the second half to help the Crimson Tide keep it close.

Grant's team had 30 points in the paint to UK's 28, outrebounded the Wildcats 35-31 and hounded Davis into 2-for-10 shooting.

"Especially at the start, we weren't able to play through the physical play," UK coach Calipari said. "That's going to be, until we learn to do that, every team's going to play us that way."

Still, Kentucky found a way to win, and it's making a habit of that. The Wildcats were in a nail-biter at Auburn but dominated down the stretch to win 68-53. UK rallied past Tennessee for a 65-62 win in Knoxville, Tenn.

When the game is on the line, these Cats are confident.

Some of that stems from pinpoint execution, Lamb said. Some of it comes from their ability to get defensive stops, Davis said, and their willingness to fight for loose balls.

Whatever the reason, the Cats keep their cool.

"I think it's the chemistry on the team," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "And I think we have a heart. I think that's what it comes down to."


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