By LARRY VAUGHT
Maybe Kentucky just needs to bring the Firecrackers, a high performance jump rope team from Cincinnati, back at Rupp Arena more often.
The Wildcats snapped a four-game losing streak — and remained unbeaten with the Firecrackers at Rupp Arena — by making the plays at the end to beat Alabama 81-71.
Kentucky forced five Alabama turnovers in the final three minutes — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had three steals — after Alabama cut the lead to 69-67 with 3 minutes, 34 seconds to go.
“Kentucky played an outstanding game, especially with their offensive rebounds. We knew we had to do a great job on the boards and this was not our best night on the boards and they made us pay the price for it,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. “We played some pretty good defense. We just couldn’t get the rebound. If we had, we could have got out in transition.”
“We gave away some games this year. We had leads late and just gave the game away. We have to start taking games from people. That means desperation. This was a good one,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Hopefully it makes them feel better but it better not make them arrogant.”
It wasn’t just that the Cats won, it was the way they won. For most of the season, UK fans have not been happy with the team’s effort. Same for Calipari. Today the Cats may not have always played well, but the effort was not a problem 95 percent of the time.
Quade Green seemed to play harder on defense than he had all season, especially off the ball. He also was efficient on offense with 5-for-6 shooting for 12 points to go with four assists and two rebounds. And get this — he had no turnovers in 31 minutes.
“He was good,” Calipari said.
Jarred Vanderbilt didn’t let missing 2-foot shots deter his effort. He finished with 11 points and got two key baskets late. He also had nine rebounds and two blocked shots.
“Their utility guy was really good. He either gets the rebound or keeps it alive,” Johnson said.
“Jarred is a beast. There are some shots you took, just don’t shoot them. Everything else you are doing is great,” Calipari said. “He’s a willing passer.”
P.J. Washington overcame a horrendous start to get some key points in the second half when he had 10 of his 16 points. He also had five rebounds to help offset five turnovers, including four in the first half.
“Early on he turned it over and fumbled the ball,” Calipari said. “But when the game got in the balance, P.J. made every play he was supposed to make. Even if he is playing poorly, I have all the faith in the world to go to him and that’s what we did.”
Knox had all 13 of his points in the second half. He also got five rebounds.
Gilgeous-Alexander was just 2-for-10 from the field and had only six points. But he had those three steals along with four rebounds and four assists.
“He came up with balls,” Calipari said. “There were other plays where he could have made better decisions, but he’s working hard.”
Kentucky dominated the rebounding 44-27 and had 20 offensive rebounds that turned in 20 second-chance points. Vanderbilt had five offensive boards among his nine rebounds.
“They just outworked us on the boards. They were the hungrier team it seemed,” Alabama’s Donta Hall said.
The Crimson Tide missed 18 of 24 3-point shots. Alabama had four players in double figures but got outscored 39-19 by the Kentucky bench.
“Give them credit. They just played like a hungry team,” Johnson said. “They are still a dangerous team. When you have the length and size they have, it’s just a matter of whether they can make some 3’s. This is a tough team. Sometimes you get desperate. When you have lost four in a row and play in this environment, you get desperate.”