In spite of hitting just 12-of-22 shots from the line late in the second half, Kentucky maintained a tenuous three-point lead over visiting Alabama. To hold onto that lead, it was plainly clear the Wildcats would need to convert from the stripe to defeat a physical Crimson Tide team.
In spite of those early misses, the Cats didn't think twice in the clutch.
"We know we're a great foul shooting team," sophomore guard Doron Lamb said. "Today we missed some in the first half and things like that happen. We just know we've got to make them at the end. We did that today."
To preserve a 77-71 victory over Alabama (13-6, 2-3 Southeastern Conference), the No. 2 Wildcats (19-1, 5-0 SEC) scored their last 15 points from the charity stripe over the final 5:32, missing just three times. Five different players stepped to the line and converted at least once in the clutch as UK finished shooting 27-for-40 (67.5 percent) for the game.
"I trust everybody," freshman forward Anthony Davis said. "Whoever gets to the line, we always say, 'Knock these two down, we'll get a stop and knock the next two in.' We can put anybody on the line and we have confidence in everyone."
Ten games into the season, UK was shooting just 67.5 percent from the line, but since then has hit 74.7 percent. The Cats are on pace to be the best free throw shooting team in John Calipari's tenures at Memphis and Kentucky.
JaMychal Green posted 22 points and 12 rebounds, while Trevor Releford added 17 points, all in the second half, as Alabama bested UK in field goal shooting (48.0 percent-43.1 percent) and rebounding (35-31). Alabama gave UK its best shot, never trailing by more than six in the second half in overcoming a raucous Rupp crowd, but the Wildcats converted 8-of-8 attempts at the stripe over the final minute.
UK split the load evenly in scoring its final 15 points at the line, with Darius Miller hitting 5-of-6, Davis 4-of-4, Terrence Jones 3-of-4, Marquis Teague 2-of-2 and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 1-of-2, but it was the senior that the Cats turned to down in the final minutes.
"Darius was making plays in the last two minutes of the game," Lamb said. "He made four foul shots we really needed and he made a couple plays we really needed. Darius is real clutch and if he keeps playing like that, we're going to go far."
Lamb and Jones have been through the wars at the college level in their season-and-a-half at UK, but Miller is even more experienced.
"Darius knows how to win games," Lamb said. "He's been there before and he's a senior. We only put the ball in his hands sometimes and he makes clutch foul shots."
More than the fact that he hit the shots, Calipari was happy Miller sought out the ball after returning to the floor when Kidd-Gilchrist fouled out. Calipari can yell and scream at his team to put the ball in Miller's hands, but if he doesn't want to be the one at the line, he won't be.
"He did it too though, and I like that," Calipari said. "I like the fact that he held that ball to get fouled."
Calipari, though, didn't want Miller or UK to be in the position of having to make those clutch free throws. The Wildcats missed a number of opportunities around the basket in the first half as well as seven free throws to prevent them from ever extending their lead to more than eight points.
"We're lucky we were in the game," Calipari said.
"We've got to play better in this, because instead of it being a two or four point game, we're going to be down eight or ten, and we're going to get caught in that situation," Calipari said.
The fact remains, though, that UK once again came up big against a quality opponent in a close game, something the Cats weren't able to do in 2010-11 until March.
"You know, teams like this that are physical, have some maturity, are playing for their lives," Calipari said. "They made every play and free throw down the stretch they needed to to keep it a game. Give them credit. Here we are with eight turnovers."
The Cats "will to win" was brought up by Calipari and each of his players who spoke after the win. UK has developed confidence in close-and-late situations, going 4-1 in games decided by single digits, which bodes well for tournament play.
"Winners, when it gets close, want the ball to go to the free throw line," Jones said. "I think that's why Coach says anybody who gets it can get fouled because we're all winners and we want to do it for our team and make it."