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Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s blowout of Alabama

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 117-95 romp over Alabama on Saturday at Rupp Arena:

1. Better late than never for Justin Edwards

We’ve been waiting all season for Kentucky freshman forward Justin Edwards to show what the scouts raved about before the Philadelphia native arrived on the UK campus. Guess what, 27 games into the season, the wait is over. Saturday, the 6-foot-8 forward lived up to the billing and then some.

Edwards couldn’t miss. Literally. He was a perfect 10-for-10 from the field, including 4-for-4 from 3-point range. He buried 3s, drained mid-range shots, scored at the rim and fought for loose balls. The only blemish on his individual stat sheet came at the foul line, where he was 4-for-5.

Why Edwards even produced a four-point play. The first of his entire career playing basketball, he said afterward. With 15:15 to go, Edwards buried a 3-ball from the right wing while taking a tumble from a Bama foul. When the teams came out of the timeout, he calmly sank the foul shot for a 75-54 Kentucky lead.

Edwards came into the game averaging just 8.1 points and 3.4 rebounds. He was shooting 45.9% from the floor and a meager 31.1% from the 3-point stripe. His season-high scoring total was 17 points in UK’s 109-77 rout at Vanderbilt back on Feb. 6. Those weren’t the kind of numbers BBN was expecting when Edwards was ranked by 247sports as the No. 3 prospect in the class of 2023.

So what changed?

“Justin’s been living in the gym,” Calipari said afterward.

“I just stayed the course,” Edwards said.

Overlooked in the aftermath of UK’s 75-74 loss at LSU on Wednesday night — a game in which the Cats squandered a 15-point second half lead — was the fact that Edwards went 3-for-4 from beyond the arc in Baton Rouge. That turned out to be a preview of things to come.

If Edwards can build off Saturday’s performance, Calipari’s club would have another dangerous weapon in an already explosive offense. That’s not a bad thing for March.

2. Alabama shot 56.7% and lost by 22

Nate Oats’ Crimson Tide entered Rupp Arena as the leader in the SEC standings with an 11-2 record. Both of Bama’s conference losses came in road games. Both were blowouts. Tennessee smothered the Tide 91-71 in Knoxville. And Auburn rolled over Bama 99-81 at Neville Arena.

Alabama didn’t shoot the ball well in either of those outings. The Tide was 4-for-21 from beyond the 3-point arc while being pasted by Tennessee. It shot 37.3% in the loss to bitter rival Auburn.

That wasn’t the case Saturday. Alabama shot 56.7% and still trailed by as may as 37 (104-67) and lost by 22. The nation’s best offense according to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency numbers averaged 1.190 point per possession. Trouble was UK averaged 1.456 points per possession.

The last time a Kentucky opponent shot that well and lost was Dec. 16, 2017, when Buzz Williams’ Virginia Tech team shot 58.2% and still lost 93-86 to the Cats.

“Everybody knows that we don’t guard at this point,” Oats said.

The Bama coach lamented that his team turned the ball over 16 times. That was a problem at Tennessee when the Tide turned it over 22 times.

“Our guards have got to take care of the ball,” said Oats, who said if you combine the Kentucky’s 29 points off turnovers with 16 points in transition, the Cats scored 45 points off Tide mistakes. “We had a lot of careless turnovers.”

Now, with four regular-season games remaining, Oats said, “We’ve got to figure out how to motivate these guys to play harder on defense.”

3. Is this the start of a strong Kentucky finish?

Calipari quipped afterward, “You say, ‘Why don’t they play like this every time?’ I don’t know. Why don’t you ask them?”

Indeed, the 2024 portion of Kentucky’s 2023-24 season has been a roller coaster ride. Look at the last three games. Last Saturday, the Cats became the first team to beat Auburn at Auburn this season. Four days later, the Cats lost a game they should not have lost. Then Saturday, Kentucky ripped the conference leader by 22 points.

After the stunner in Baton Rouge, the Cats needed a confidence-booster on Saturday. And that’s exactly what they got by boat-racing Bama.

The trick now is to keep it going. Alabama’s rip-and-run offense played to Kentucky’s strength. That won’t be the case Tuesday night at Mississippi State. Chris Jans’ team prefers a slower pace and a much more physical style of basketball.

And State is playing well. The Bulldogs had won four straight heading into Saturday night’s game at LSU. They’ll be eager to avenge their 90-77 loss to Kentucky back at Rupp on Jan. 17.

With a mere four games remaining in the regular season, this is the time to finish strong. Not only did Edwards have a booster-shot of a game, Zvonimir Ivisic was fantastic with 18 points, five rebounds and four blocked shots. Reed Sheppard had six rebounds and six assists. Rob Dillingham scored 16 points and dished four assists.

Said Calipari, “We just got to get locked in.”

Kentucky guard Justin Edwards (1) shoots the ball against Alabama during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky guard Justin Edwards (1) shoots the ball against Alabama during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.

Box score from No. 17 Kentucky basketball’s 117-95 SEC win over No. 13 Alabama

SEC college basketball final: Kentucky 117, Alabama 95

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Shot charts from No. 17 Kentucky basketball’s 117-95 win over No. 13 Alabama