LEXINGTON – February 19, 2022 – Keith Taylor
Kentucky was shorthanded Saturday but got a big lift from its veterans in a 90-81 win over Alabama.
The Wildcats (22-5, 11-3 Southeastern Conference) were without starters Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington and were noticeably lost without their backcourt early, but used its experience to overcome a slow start and complete a regular-season sweep of Alabama.
Knowing his team was going to be without Wheeler and Washington, Kentucky coach John Calipari shut down practice to all outsiders and had less than two days to prepare for the Crimson Tide. Calipari wanted no distractions coming off a disappointing 76-63 loss at Tennessee Tuesday night in Knoxville.
The stress of a poor performance against the Volunteers, coupled with injuries to two of his starters, weighed heavily on Calipari’s mind.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “We had two days (to prepare) … we needed two days to get ready for how the (heck) we were going to play. What do we do? Who are the subs? Do we sub?”
Calipari also showed his team a video message by Alabama coach Nick Saban that gave his team something to fall back on during a time of adversity.
“It was an incredible message, a very candid message,” Grady said. “He essentially said when guys are down, you can either put in the work as you were playing a lot when the opportunity comes and rise to the occasion or you reverting or doing the ‘woe is me approach.’ That was a good message for us when were down two starters for us to hear.”
Calipari did very little substituting and rode it out with a makeshift starting lineup that played mostly the entire game and relied on veteran guards Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz to carry the Wildcats in the absence of Wheeler and Washington.
Grady was prepared and it was his clutch shooting from long range that gave the Wildcats the production they needed to overcome the Crimson Tide. Grady finished with 25 points and connected on seven 3-pointers in what he described as one of the best performances of his collegiate career.
“In my experience in college, this is probably one of the most rewarding wins I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “Just knowing what we were up against. … We were down a couple of guys, pivotal guys on our team who make things go for us and we responded.”
Without its two guards, Kentucky also overcame a hot start by Alabama, which made 14 threes and led 41-28 at one point in the first half. Grady countered nine threes by the Crimson Tide in the first 15 minutes with the first of two treys of his own during a 13-0 run, the latter of which gave the hosts a 47-46 lead.
Grady came through again in the second half and drained three shots from long range in a three-minute span to stave off a comeback attempt by Alabama. It was all the Wildcats needed to seal the deal.
“Kellan (Grady) played out of his mind,” forward Jacob Toppin said. “He was hitting shots left and right. To be able to step into the point guard position, not a lot of people know that he played point guard his senior year at Davidson, so people try to play up on him. But he still got his shots off. He still ran the team. And I think he did an excellent job doing that. “
The comeback, Toppin said, can be attributed to the team’s success at home and the Wildcats’ fan base.
“This is Kentucky basketball. People come into our arena, we go to people’s arenas, and the first five minutes of the game, everyone’s hitting every shot because they’re excited to play Kentucky,” Toppin said. “That’s how it is all the time, and we already know. Coach always emphasizes staying the course, just keep grinding it out. And that’s what we do. “
All five of Kentucky’s starters logged 35 minutes or more and Grady, Mintz, and Toppin played nearly the entire contest. Oscar Tshiebwe followed Grady with 21 points and 14 rebounds, followed by Keion Brooks with 18 points and Toppin with 13. The team’s ability to overcome the absence of two starters wasn’t a surprise to Grady.
“It shows how good of a team we are and we’re well-equipped to handle adversity and rise to challenges like today,” he said. “The country knows what we are at full strength and we’ve proven that. This just shows the grit and resilience (of the team).”
Gametracker: LSU at Kentucky, 9 p.m., Wednesday. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network.