No. 7 Alabama and unranked Kentucky both started this week with Southeastern Conference victories, setting up a Saturday showdown between the teams at Tuscaloosa, Ala.
In conference play against Mississippi programs in their past two games, the Crimson Tide (12-2, 2-0) have coasted and have moved atop the SEC standings and within the nation’s top 10 teams.
Alabama won at then-No. 21 Mississippi State 78-67 on Dec. 28. Coach Nate Oats’ squad then easily took down Ole Miss 84-62 on Tuesday after leading by 21 points at halftime.
Brandon Miller led the Tide with 17 points to go with five rebounds and three steals. The freshman tops the team in scoring with 19.1 points per game and averages 8.6 rebounds.
Alabama improved to 7-0 on its home court and moved to 12-2 overall – its best start since the 2014-15 season – by putting five scorers in double figures and turning the ball over a season-low seven times.
“When competing for an SEC championship, you have to take care of your home games,” Oats said. “They outrebounded us by 10 in the second half, so that is an issue, which is going to be a big issue against Kentucky.”
The Wildcats’ rebound-snaring Oscar Tshiebwe – the nation’s leader at 13.8 per game — is a large part of that big issue.
At home on Tuesday night, Kentucky (10-4, 1-1) notched its first conference victory of the season behind a strong night from Jacob Toppin, including a pair of late free throws, to hold off LSU 74-71.
The Wildcats nearly let the chance at victory slip away in the final 10 seconds. With Kentucky ahead 72-68, Chris Livingston fouled the Tigers’ Cam Hayes on a 3-point attempt, and Hayes made all three free throws to trim the deficit to one point. On the inbound play, LSU’s Derek Fountain stole the pass but stepped on the sideline.
After Toppin was fouled, he hit two free throws for the game’s final points.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said his squad has to play through situations like Tuesday’s to figure out its way forward.
“At the end, you know, we foul a 3-point shooter, and we give up a 3 when (Kentucky’s) Cason (Wallace) had the layup, and all of a sudden it’s five,” Calipari said of the shrinking late lead. “But you know what, it’s us. We’ve got to be in these kind of events to figure out what we do.”
Toppin finished with 21 points after scoring 24 in the previous game against Louisville on New Year’s Eve. He totaled just nine points in the prior three games.
In playing a full 40 minutes for the second straight game, Tshiebwe had 19 points and 16 rebounds – seven on the offensive end.
“Our team needs a lot of energy, especially in a game like this. If we don’t come with energy like that, it will affect our team,” he said.
Kentucky dropped out of the Associated Press’ Top 25 this week after losing 89-75 at Missouri on Dec. 28.
–Field Level Media