Edwards has breakthrough as Kentucky rolls past Alabama

Published 12:44 pm Monday, February 26, 2024

Kentucky beat the top team in the Southeastern Conference Saturday and it wasn’t even close.

The 17th-ranked Wildcats (19-8, 9-5) rolled to a 117-95 victory over No. 13 Alabama in a showdown between two of the top three scoring teams in the nation. Coming off a 75-74 loss at the buzzer to LSU earlier this week, in which the Cats blew a 15-point lead, Kentucky produced its best performance of the year against the Crimson Tide.

“This was a good win against a good team, by the way, a scoring team,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I thought we may have to outscore them because of how good they are offensively. ”

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It was the fifth time — the second in league play — that the Wildcats have eclipsed the century mark this season. It was the highest-scoring output since a 118-82 rout of Marshall on Nov. 24. Kentucky has won three of its past four games and in remain in position to grab one of four byes in the SEC tournament – and the double-bye that comes with it – with two weeks remaining in the regular season.

“Kentucky was ready to play tonight and we weren’t,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “Cal had his guys ready to go.”

Oats contributed the loss to Kentucky’s ability to score in transition. The Wildcats forced 16 turnovers and scored 29 points off those miscues.

“You can’t turn the ball over that much,” Oats said.

Alabama was limited to its second-lowest scoring output in the past eight games. The first 10 minutes featured five ties and 10 lead changes. Unlike its outing in Baton Rouge, once Kentucky got the lead, the Wildcats kept the foot on the proverbial gas pedal and got a big offensive performance from an unlikely source.

In his best offensive showing of the year, freshman forward Justin Edwards poured in a career-high 28 points. Edwards was a perfect 10-10 floor and sank all four of his shots from long range. It was a breakthrough the freshman forward has sought for most of the season.

“It felt good,” Edwards said. “Like I said out there, I’ve been struggling mentally and to just to be able to go out there and go play how I did, it means a lot.”

Calipari wasn’t surprised by Edwards’ performance.

“I kept saying ‘You’re going to break through,'” Calipari said. “(I told him) ‘I believe in you, I believe in you, I said, ‘You’ve just got to stay the course.’… He has lived in the gym. He made every shot.”

Led by Edwards, who also grabbed five rebounds and dished out two assists, five players finished in double figures. Antonio Reeves, the team’s leading scorer, finished with 24 points, followed by Zvonimir Ivisic with a career-high 18. It was Ivisic’s best outing since he tallied 13 points in his debut in a 105-96 win over Georgia on Jan. 20.

Much like he has done with Edwards this season, Calipari went with his instincts and gave Ivisic the bulk of the minutes in the post off the bench and it paid off. The decision, Calipari said, was met with some “pushback.”

“When I wake up and my gut says that’s what I should do, then I’m doing it,” Calipari said. “He’s waited his turn.”

Rob Dillingham added 16 points, followed by Adou Thiero with 12. Reed Sheppard added eight points, six rebounds, six assists and four steals.

Kentucky made it difficult on Alabama defensively and limited the Crimson Tide, who make a living behind the arc, to just six 3-pointers, with four of those coming in the opening half. In comeback mode, which never materialized, Alabama made just two treys in the second half.

“Alabama’s a really really good team and they’re really good three-point shooting team,” Sheppard said. “We had to work to take those away from them. We stuck to our game plan really well. And that’s what happens when we stick together and stick to the game plan — just have confidence and faith in each other.”

Kentucky was without senior Tre Mitchell, who sat out for the third straight game because of an injured shoulder.