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Defense helps Cats bounce back with win over Alabama

Matthew Mitchell left Kentucky’s last game plainly unhappy, not so much with the fact that the Wildcats lost but more so with the effort they gave in doing so.

Even so, he wasn’t overly worried about that issue recurring, considering his team’s past performance.

On Thursday, the Cats made a prompt return to form.

“It was definitely important to come back and bounce back,” Chasity Patterson said. “We got in the gym. We just focused on us. Every time we get down like that and have a disappointing game like that, we just always focus on ourselves and we gotta move forward.”

UK’s performance against Alabama was by no means perfect, but there was no question about energy and hustle — particularly on defense. The No. 15/5 Wildcats (18-4, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) were disruptive from start to finish against the Crimson Tide (13-10, 3-7 SEC), leading the way to a big 66-62 victory in their third straight game without star Rhyne Howard.

“We had to do it together,” Mitchell said. “With your back against the wall after a really lackluster performance Sunday, it’s so easy for doubt to creep in on you. Just a really tough Alabama team and I think it’s an amazing effort for us to bounce back from just the terrible disappointment of Sunday and find a way.”

Kentucky had eight steals on the evening, with Sabrina Haines saving the biggest for last as the Tide mounted a late rally. UK’s lead at five, Haines took the ball away De’sha Benjamin and sprinted ahead for a layup to stretch the lead back to seven.

“That was a huge play for her,” Mitchell said. “A lot of her big moments have been some 3-pointers that she made. She made some tonight, but that was a huge defensive play.”

With the play, Haines accounted for two of UK’s 21 points off turnovers. For the game, the Cats held a 17-6 advantage in turnovers and outscored Alabama by 19 points off of them.

“It just helps us so much when we’re missing our leading scorer when Alabama played really tough defense and we didn’t shoot the ball that great tonight, but we’re able to manufacture some offense from hustle on defense,” Mitchell said.

The last of UK’s blocks was even bigger. The Tide, having scored on four straight possessions after Haines’ steal, came up with an offensive rebound in the final 20 seconds with a chance to cut the Wildcat lead from four. Instead, Tatyana Wyatt blocked a would-be layup and forced a jump ball that gave possession to Kentucky.

UK tied a season high in blocks with seven, as KeKe McKinney accounted for five by herself in spite of giving up size against Alabama’s frontcourt.

“She was a great presence,” Mitchell said. “Five blocks. Incredible timing, incredible tenacity just staying after it. And they were big. They were big plays because their kids were in there in range to make some layups. Every play in this kind of game where it was so close and the margin for error is so thin are big plays.”

Kentucky certainly played like a team that understands that. The Cats intend to carry that approach forward through the final six games of the regular season and beyond.

“It just makes us remember that every game is key,” Haines said. “Every single game. No matter who you’re playing, no matter what their rank in the conference is, anybody can beat anybody because it’s the SEC. We just have to take it one game at a time, one day at a time. When we do that and we work on ourselves and we’re able to get these key wins, that’s what’s going to set us up for success.”