No. 5 Kentucky 78, No. 16 Alabama 71
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP)—Patrick Sparks wanted the ball, and Tubby Smith wasn’t going to deny him.
Sparks hit five of his seven 3-pointers in the second half and scored a season-high 26 points, lifting No. 5 Kentucky to a 78-71 comeback victory over 16th-ranked Alabama on Saturday to clinch the Wildcats’ 43rd Southeastern Conference title.
Smith had no problem pinpointing the moment he knew Sparks was feeling it.
“When he hollered over to me, ‘Call my number, coach,”’ he said. “When he made the first one, we kept going to him.”
Led by Sparks, Kentucky (22-3, 13-1) turned a 14-point deficit late in the first half into an eight-point cushion. Then the Wildcats held off a late charge by going 8-for-10 from the free throw line down the stretch, handing the Crimson Tide (21-6, 10-4) its first home loss of the season.
Beating a team Smith called “talented enough to win it all” on the road isn’t a bad way to clinch an SEC title for the Wildcats.
Kentucky made a season-high 13 3-pointers on only 19 attempts.
“We caught fire,” the Wildcats’ Chuck Hayes said. “Anywhere in the gym tonight, (Sparks) was going to hit it.”
Sparks found an array of ways to get his shot off: teammates’ screens, nifty jukes and sometimes just stepping a few feet behind the 3-point line and letting a long one fly. He had 20 points after halftime, going 5-for-6 on 3-pointers.
“I caught my rhythm kind of early tonight,” Sparks said. “Shooting is a lot about rhythm. You get in that rhythm, and you’re going to have a good night.”
After Alabama came within three points on Ronald Steele’s jumper with just under a minute left, Sparks sealed the victory. He collected a rebound and hit three free throws in the final 34 seconds to wrap up the conference crown.
Sparks matched his career best with seven 3-pointers, something the junior transfer had done twice before at Western Kentucky.
“Everything he threw up seemed to go in,” said Kennedy Winston, who scored 21 points and often had the task of trying to guard Sparks.
Kelenna Azubuike added 15 points for Kentucky, which has won 12 of 13 games. Ravi Moss had 10 points while Hayes had nine points but only three rebounds.
Winston went 5-for-9 on 3-point attempts. Chuck Davis had 15 first-half points but hardly touched the ball inside after that and finished with 17. Alabama had a 13-game home winning streak snapped.
At one point during the Wildcats’ second-half surge, Sparks scored 11 consecutive Kentucky points, still finding ways to get open 3s despite his hot streak.
Kentucky, which trailed by as many as 14 points before halftime, took a 50-47 lead on a three-point play by Azubuike with 11:42 left to cap a 13-0 run for its first lead since the opening minutes.
After that, the game was played at a faster tempo that favored the deeper Wildcats, with Kentucky building a 70-62 lead on an open dunk by Lukasz Obrzut.
“That was our No. 1 goal, to try to wear them down with our bench,” Smith said. “They were getting the same shots but their legs were a little tired. And that’s what our bench can do.”
The Tide was coming off a last-second 61-59 loss at chief Western Division challenger LSU and is still chasing a division title. Alabama still would have been a longshot for an overall title with a win, as Kentucky would have had to lose its final two games.
The Tide took a 36-29 halftime lead. Davis and Winston combined for 18 of Alabama’s first 20 points.
After that, Alabama scored 11 straight points to build a 33-19 lead late in the first half, including six more points from Davis, before Kentucky closed the gap.
Davis was perfect in four field-goal attempts and seven free throws while Winston hit four 3-pointers by halftime.
But the second half belonged to the Kentucky shooters.
“I don’t think it was so much we did things poorly,” Tide coach Mark Gottfried said. “I think they just got some good things done. Whether we defended well or not, they stepped up and knocked some shots down.”