Tide guts out one against Kentucky

Alabama players celebrate with fans after defeating Kentucky 59-55. (AP photo by Michelle Lepianka Carter of The Tuscaloosa News)

Alabama players celebrate with fans after defeating Kentucky 59-55. (AP photo by Michelle Lepianka Carter of The Tuscaloosa News)

TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — Defense and guts did it again for the offense-challenged Alabama basketball team, which managed another close win.

The Crimson Tide won its fourth straight Tuesday night, using a healthy dose of scrappy play to beat defending national champion Kentucky 59-55. The Wildcats entered having averaged 77.1 points a game and had a season low of 64 before coming to Coleman Coliseum.

“They shot 36 percent from the field, 15 percent from 3, got outrebounded by 12 and — listen to this — they won,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I love those kinds of games. Neither team played well. This is a gut game, and they gutted it out.”

Gutty play has served Alabama well in its four-game streak. In that stretch, the Crimson Tide (12-6, 4-1 SEC) has won by one point, three points and now four points.

“You look at it and say there’s a lot of things for us to get better as a team,” Tide coach Anthony Grant said. “To be able to win, that speaks volumes for the character of our guys.”

Alabama led the final 9:43 but never by more than four until the final seconds. The Crimson Tide took the lead for good when 6-foot-4 reserve guard Andrew Steele gave his team its guttiest play of the night.

He drove up against Kentucky’s 6-10 post player Nerlens Noel, who leads the league in blocked shots. Even so, Steele managed to make the basket, draw a foul from Noel and made the foul shot for a 41-38 advantage.

“That’s just Drew,” Alabama’s Levi Randolph said. “He’s always making those kinds of plays.”

The game drew Alabama’s first home sellout of the year at 15,383 and an ESPN national television audience. Coleman Coliseum saw its most electric atmosphere of the season, as the fans — some wearing the 10,000 free crimson T-shirts passed out before tipoff — stood for much of the final minutes of the game.

“That gives us an extra boost,” Alabama’s Trevor Releford said. “When we hear the crowd behind us like that, it makes us want to get an extra steal, an extra rebound — gives us extra energy.”

Releford had 13 points, while Randolph managed 11. Both made important foul shots toward the end. Nick Jacobs had a team-high 14 points.

The Crimson Tide got four points, five rebounds and five blocked shots from 7-foot-0 junior Moussa Gueye, who started and played 18 minutes. He battled Noel, who finished with eight points, 13 rebounds and seven blocked shots.

“Moussa is the ultimate teammate,” Releford said. “He comes out and tries to do everything he can do to help the team. Today, it was blocking shots, and he did what he could to help the team win.”

The Crimson Tide led Kentucky (12-6, 3-2) only 51-50 with 1:12 to play. Steele then missed a driving layup against Noel, but Jacobs put in the rebound.

Rodney Cooper later added a foul shot, Steele had one and Randolph two as Kentucky kept missing shots. The Wildcats had a stretch of 11:35 without a basket, and they didn’t hit one from 2:14 until Julius Mays sank a 3-pointer with 8.8 seconds to play. That only cut Alabama’s lead to 57-53, when the Tide appeared to have this one in hand.

Releford added a pair of foul shots, and Kentucky’s Noel slammed home a basket for the final points.

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