"It was important that we came out and showed toughness and played with a lot of intensity for 40 minutes today," said UK guard Ramel Bradley, who had 17 points on 5-for-12 shooting from the field and 4-for-4 at the foul line.
Junior center Randolph Morris had his 10th double-double of the year with 17 points and 11 rebounds. He was 8-for-10 from the field and no matter what the Crimson Tide tried, he normally scored when he got the ball inside. However, he said UK's hustle as more important than his scoring.
"Usually the person or team that wins the game is the team that gets to the loose balls quicker and wins the hustle games and chases down rebounds," Morris said. "So that's generally what we tried to do. Today it looked like everything was going our way in that category."
Take this play. The Cats turned the ball over midway of the second half with a seven-point lead. Bradley did his best to stop Alabama's 3-on-1 fast break, but at the last second Sheray Thomas came out of nowhere to disrupt the shot. When it missed, a hustling Joe Crawford got the rebound for UK.
Effort, effort and more effort.
That's the way Tubby Smith wants his team to play all the time. At times this year, the Cats have done that. At other times, they have not been that sharp mentally or physically.
"Good effort plays, like getting on the floor for loose balls, like Joe did that one time, that set a tone for the game," Smith said. "As a team, we've done it for the most part, but we haven't done it consistently. We've had the effort, but we have to have an extra effort when you get to tournament play. And that's what we're looking for now, and the extra effort is what we got today."
Want more effort? Bradley is recognized as UK's team leader. He's the outspoken, vocal leader who won't shy away from taking shots or controversy. However, his biggest job today was to pressure Alabama's point guard - and he did that well. He forced four turnovers - two bad passes, one walk and one over-and-back -- to more than offset the two turnovers he had in 37 minutes.
"I know people don't always believe this, but I take pride in my defense," Bradley said. "Being looked up to as a leader, I realize effort and hustle has to start with me. When we're out there, I try to have my intensity on defense. I know when I pressure the ball and show emotion, it trickles down to the other players."
Not only that, but his confidence trickles down to others as well. When he hit back-to-back 3-point shots in the first half to put UK on top 30-27, the other Cats responded. UK had a 35-27 halftime lead and Alabama never led the second half.
Senior Bobby Perry had his fourth straight big game. He scored 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting. It was his fourth straight game in double figures, his longest streak in four years at Kentucky. He's averaging 17.5 points per game during the stretch.
Then there is super sub Jodie Meeks. The freshman hit double digits for the fifth straight game by tallying 12 points in 24 minutes on 4-for-6 shooting.
"I think it's very important that we share the wealth. We're a much more dangerous team when everybody's hitting, and we're getting scoring and rebounding and everything from every one of our players," Bradley said
Morris insisted he had nothing special to prove with his play back in his hometown.
"That's not me. As you can see, I never try to get overly emotional or show anybody up. I just wanted to play well to help us win," Morris said.
But can the Cats keep winning?
Now they get a rested Mississippi State team that dismantled both Alabama and Vanderbilt late in the season.
"They are tough. We will have to play well," UK guard Joe Crawford, who had 16 points on 7-for-14 shooting, said.
What about those Vandy and Alabama victories they had?
"Don't take this wrong, but Alabama and Vanderbilt don't play defense like we do. We are going to force them to take tough shots. If you play good defense like we do, teams can't score the way they like," Crawford said.
"We've got one win, but we want a lot more. This win takes some pressure off us, but we're not close to satisfied yet. We have a lot more to do here."