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Cats get the win they needed on Senior Night

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UK defeated Alabama on Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson's Senior Night, 55-48. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK defeated Alabama on Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson's Senior Night, 55-48. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It didn't have to be a work of art, but make no mistake: Only one result was an option on Tuesday night in Rupp Arena.

"At the end of the day, you and I know we just had to win this game," John Calipari said. "Didn't matter the score. Could have been a half-court bank shot."

Having lost two in a row and facing scrutiny unprecedented even for a team Calipari dubbed a few weeks ago the most overanalyzed in sports, Coach Cal admitted afterward UK had to beat Alabama. But it wasn't to quiet the critics or to satisfy fans.

The Wildcats needed a victory after what had happened to their emotional state in suffering defeats to Arkansas and South Carolina and facing the fire that followed.

"They got a little rattled," Calipari said.

UK didn't end up needing that half-court shot, but the Cats' 55-48 win over Alabama wasn't pretty either. Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson's 3-pointers to open the scoring for Kentucky may have seemed like a start to a storybook Senior Night, but the No. 25/24 (22-8, 12-5 Southeastern Conference) Cats would have to scratch and claw from start to finish to take down the Crimson Tide (12-18, 6-11 SEC).

"Obviously you guys saw, we definitely didn't play the best we could have played," Polson said. "It didn't help that we couldn't hit a shot for the most part of the game. We did what we had to do to win and I think just getting a win, honestly, was good for us no matter how it looked."

UK struggled from the field yet again in the win, shooting under 35 percent for the third game in a row. The Cats, however, were able to overcome numerous misses from around the basket with a 41-27 rebounding edge and 18-of-24 shooting from the free-throw line.

Julius Randle (12 points, 11 rebounds) posted his sixth double-double in seven outings, while Dakari Johnson provided a spark off the bench.

"I thought Dakari was outstanding," Calipari said.

The freshman -- who laughed with reporters about being in seventh grade when Hood began his UK career -- had nine points and five rebounds. He played a key role in the 20-6 run the Cats used to claim control in the first 10 minutes after halftime with both his play and his energy.

"It's just who I am," Johnson said. "I like to have fun on the court. Anything that has a positive impact on the team, I'm going to do it."

Johnson is coming off a national championship in his final high-school season and his freshman teammates experienced similar success as prep star. Polson and Hood, having spent a combined nine seasons at UK, just aren't accustomed to losing either.

That makes a little mental fragility after two losses in three days understandable.

"I think all of us were a little rattled to a certain degree," Hood said. "We just had to rediscover, redefine what we were and we did that to an extent tonight and now we gotta move forward."

Asked to clarify his meaning, Hood gave an answer that reflects his experience.

"Players are going to play," Hood said. "Coaches are going to coach. Officials are going to officiate. You can't get all boggled up with the officials and how they're calling the call or how the coach is on you, whatever. We're 18 year old men and above. I'm 22. We know how to play basketball at this point. Just gotta go play."

To Calipari, that simply means having fun.

"I just keep telling them, 'You have to have more fun than the other team,' " Calipari said. " 'You have to.' If we lose, I've said this for five years, who is taking responsibility? I will take responsibility. If we win, they get all the glory."

There's ample opportunity for glory in UK's regular-season finale on Saturday. The Cats will head to Gainesville, Fla., with a chance to end top-ranked Florida's unbeaten run through SEC play.

"We have a day off tomorrow, two days, a noon game down in Florida," Calipari said. "Absolute war. It will be a hard game for us. But it's a great game for us. It's exactly what this team needs."

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