ST. LOUIS — Kentucky is already in the NCAA Tournament. Alabama is trying to earn its way into the Big Dance.
The Crimson Tide, who defeated top-seeded Auburn 81-63 Friday, will face the fourth-seeded Wildcats in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Scottrade Center.
Alabama used a layup at the buzzer to fend off Texas A&M on Thursday and capitalized on the momentum from Collin Sexton’s buzzer-beater to easily defeat the Tigers in the quarterfinals. For a team that struggled and endured a five-game losing streak prior to the postseason, the Crimson Tide is now in contention for an at-large bid when the NCAA Tournament field is announced Sunday.
“We knew, when we came in this tournament, we had to win games, and we wanted to because we have a lot to prove,” said Sexton. “I feel like everybody counted us out, and Coach told us, just go out there and play. Whatever the outcome is, just play and give it your all while you’re out there.”
On the heels of a rare four-game losing streak, Kentucky defeated Alabama 81-71 on Feb. 17 at Rupp Arena. The win over Alabama sparked a four-game winning streak for Kentucky, which has won five of its last six games. John Calipari knows how good Sexton is and also is aware of his supporting cast.
“They’ve got size, they’ve got scoring ability, they’ve got length (and) they’ve got toughness,” Calipari said. “They went through what we went through. They lost four, five in a row. They did exactly what we went through. And you won’t believe this, you don’t like going through that. Normally, if you can survive it, it makes your team better. It makes them stronger. How about this: It makes them appreciate winning more. It makes it so I’m not going to be selfish so we lose. I’ll give up something so that we win.
“That’s what happened to this team. This team became a very happy team. They went from being shell-shocked and rocked, a little fearful, to a happy, aggressive team when we started winning. Part of it, we just had to win a game.”
Although it took a miracle finish to upend the Aggies on Thursday, Sexton said Alabama is “just having fun.”
“If we’re having fun, we’re going to make shots,” Sexton said. “That’s really all it is. So my teammates responded to me, and we were having fun playing together. That’s really the main thing.”
Alabama coach Avery Johnson said his team’s backcourt is a big reason Alabama is having success in the tournament and raved about his team’s performance in the second half against Auburn on Friday.
“This is no magic formula,” he said. “I have two outstanding guards. They’re outstanding. They play with a lot of heart. They breed a lot of confidence into our team. And even in the first half today, when we didn’t play our best basketball, they’ll tell you, I didn’t raise my voice. I used understandable English, no bad words, and we just talked about how we needed to improve in the second half, and they did it.”
Regardless of what happens in the semifinals, Johnson thinks his team has earned their way into the NCAA Tournament.
“Right now that’s other people making that decision,” he said. “All we can do now is build a resumé. We feel we have one of the most impressive resumés with any team in the country with all our Top 25 wins, quadrant one wins, winning on a neutral floor, back to back games in the SEC tournament against two outstanding teams that are projected and supposedly already in the tournament.
“All you can do is allow what you do on the floor to speak for itself. Talk is cheap. I say that all the time. But we are an NCAA Tournament team if you want to know my opinion. There shouldn’t be any doubt about that.”
“They’re an NCAA Tournament team,” he said. “They’re that good.”
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.