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UK making last year's late-game worries a distant memory

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Darius Miller and Kentucky face Alabama at noon on Saturday on CBS. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Darius Miller and Kentucky face Alabama at noon on Saturday on CBS. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This time last year, the questions were already swirling.

Could the 2010-11 Kentucky Wildcats win a close game? Could they answer the bell in a raucous road environment? Did they have the necessary toughness to make a run in March?

UK's second-half comeback bid from 20 points down had just been foiled by home-standing Alabama in a 68-66 defeat, sending UK to its second of six losses away from Rupp Arena in Southeastern Conference play.

"They wanted it more than we did," point guard Brandon Knight said after the loss to the Crimson Tide.

By the time the season was over, UK authoritatively answered those questions with a road win over Tennessee to close the regular season and a subsequent run the Final Four.

This year, John Calipari's team doesn't seem to have any intention of waiting that long.

"It seems like we always come out with close wins and that's a big key," senior guard Darius Miller said. "We really struggled with that last year and I think we're doing a way better job this year at this point in the season. Hopefully we can continue to develop."

Heading into a game against that same Alabama team (13-5, 2-2 SEC) at noon on Saturday in Rupp Arena, the No. 2 Wildcats (18-1, 4-0 SEC) have already matched last season's SEC road win total with a pair of hard-fought wins at Auburn and Tennessee. UK also boasts a 3-1 record in games decided by single digits after losing eight such games in 2010-11.

Additionally, the Wildcats have fought back from second-half deficits to put together game-ending runs five times already this season. The only time UK has fallen short this season was at Indiana, and even then the Cats demonstrated a grit last year's team didn't take on until the winter began to thaw into spring.

Down 63-53 in front of an Indiana crowd on the verge of exploding, UK outscored the Hoosiers 19-10 over the final 9:04 even though Christian Watford hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to send the Cats to their only loss of the season. Afterward, Calipari couldn't help but be happy with his team's effort.

"I'm proud of my team," Calipari said after the loss. "I'm proud of how they gutted it out in the second half, how they played to win."

The Indiana game, though, is far from the only time UK has buckled down in the waning minutes.

On the road facing Tennessee and an eight-point deficit, UK closed on a 29-18 run over the final 13:46 to win 65-62.

At Auburn and trailing by two, the Wildcats bested the Tigers with suffocating defense and a 23-6 spurt over the final 10:52 in a 68-53 win.

In Freedom Hall, Arkansas-Little Rock was thinking upset with a 34-31 lead with 16:28 to go before UK outscored the Trojans 42-17.

Against North Carolina, the Cats scored 17 of the game's final 29 points to close out a 73-72 win.

That's five games, five second-half deficits, and four wins for the Cats. Adding up those game-ending runs, UK has outscored those five opponents 130-63 over 58:55, essentially three halves of basketball.

"I think we play with a lot more confidence at the end of the game," sophomore forward Terrence Jones said. "Last year, we played more scared to lose than really trying to play to win."

Miller called that end-of-game confidence "something that the team last year didn't have at this point", while Jones pointed to the fact that UK has so many talented players willing and able to step up this season as a key factor in clutch performances.

Jones, Miller and sophomore guard Doron Lamb all came up with crucial plays in UK's tournament run in 2011. They are joined by four precocious freshmen who have shown no fear. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis, in particular, have already developed big-game reputations, while Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer have had moments as well.

"Last year we didn't have the confidence in ourselves to make plays that guys have in themselves this year," Jones said. "A lot of guys are stepping up and knocking down free throws in crunch time and hitting shots that, last year, I think guys just wouldn't shoot."

Inevitably, UK will play close games in SEC play and beyond, but the next challenge for the Cats is to bottle their play late in games and bring that same kind of intensity from the opening tip. They came closer than they have all season to doing just that in an 86-63 win over Arkansas on Tuesday, leading Calipari to shake off his customary post-game press conference melancholy in favor of a sunnier disposition.

"I think he was kind of happy to see that we were making strides," Miller said. "We've been playing better as a team. He can see that we're growing as a team and I think that's all he wants to see."

Calipari expects Alabama's potent inside duo of Tony Mitchell (13.7 points, 7.4 rebounds) and JaMychal Green (13.7 points, 6.7 rebounds) to provide a stiff test. The Crimson Tide may have just dropped a 69-59 home decision to Vanderbilt, the only team besides UK with an unbeaten mark in SEC play, on Thursday night, but Anthony Grant's team is going to bring the same brand of physical defense that carried them to last season's win over UK.

"They're going to be mean and nasty," Calipari said.

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