NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The fourth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats have Reid Travis back to fill a physical gap in their lineup.
And that makes them even more dangerous.
Tyler Herro scored 20 points and Kentucky started its quest for a fifth straight Southeastern Conference Tournament title by beating Alabama 73-55 Friday night in the quarterfinals.
Travis returned for his first game since spraining his right knee, which kept him out of the past five games. The Wildcats lost only once without him, but the 6-foot-8 forward showed his value with eight points, seven rebounds and three blocks in just 23 minutes off the bench.
“We feel really good with Reid back now,” Kentucky forward P.J. Washington said. “I mean we still have some work to do obviously, but we feel like we can get better.
Kentucky coach John Calipari was happy to have Travis back.
“Just the strength in having a guy when it comes time you have to go get the ball, he can physically get down there and go get it,” Calipari said.
With a heavy contingent of Big Blue Nation on hand, the Wildcats (27-5) improved to 17-2 all-time at this tournament against Alabama, and they got a measure of revenge for opening SEC play with a 77-75 road loss to the Crimson Tide back on Jan. 5. Kentucky will play No. 8 Tennessee, an 83-76 winner over Mississippi State, in the semifinals Saturday.
Alabama (18-15) needed to beat Kentucky again to burnish its resume for the NCAA Tournament after going 8-10 in conference play during the regular season. Beating Mississippi in the second round likely won’t be enough for the Tide. Coach Avery Johnson is 6-0 against everybody not named Kentucky in this tournament but has yet to beat the Wildcats, who’ve ended the Tide’s run each of his four seasons.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to sneak in,” Johnson said of the NCAA Tournament.
Washington, Kentucky’s lone representative on the AP All-SEC team, finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds. He also had four blocks. Immanuel Quickley added 12 points.
Kentucky held Alabama to a season-low 30.4 percent shooting. Kira Lewis Jr. came in averaging a team-high 13.9 points a game and finished with three points. Tevin Mack scored 22 in helping Alabama upset Kentucky in January. This time, the junior missed all seven shots and was held scoreless.
“They just shrunk the floor,” Lewis said of Kentucky.
That left opportunity for Alex Reese, a sophomore who came in averaging just 5.5 points a game, and he only played seven minutes for Alabama in the second round. Reese led Alabama with 15 points. Donta Hall also had 14.
Alabama, trying to get back to the semifinals for a third straight year, led twice in the opening minutes with Herbert Jones’ jumper putting the Tide up 6-4. Washington hit a 3, then Herro added a pair of free throws to start Kentucky on a 17-2 run that Richards capped with a dunk and a pair of free throws midway through the half.
The Tide got within 33-27 on a 3-pointer by Dazon Ingram with 2:24 left, but they couldn’t get any closer as Kentucky scored the next six. The Wildcats led 39-29 at halftime.
Kentucky just kept padding the lead, struggling to push the margin past 15. Herro finally gave the Wildcats their biggest lead with a 3 with 48 seconds left for the final margin.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide hurt their NCAA hopes having lost seven of the last 10. They also didn’t help themselves during the nonconference slate with losses to Northeastern, UCF and Georgia State that not even a win over Murray State could ease.
Kentucky: The Wildcats are dangerous enough when they’re running the floor and knocking down shots. They showed off their length and defense early with five steals they converted into eight points. They also finished with a season-high 10 blocks.
Travis hadn’t played since being hurt Feb. 19 at Missouri. He didn’t hit his first shot until 19:12 to go in the second half playing with a brace.
“It took me a little bit to get my feet under me,” Travis said. “I felt more comfortable in the second half, so it feels good just to get the first one out of the way and see how I feel.”
WATCH THE TAPE
Herro was 4-of-12 shooting in the loss at Alabama, and he went 8 of 14 in this game, saying he took the shots he can make. Calipari chimed in immediately.
“Tell them the tape that you had to watch, like every missed shot in that game,” Calipari said. “He had to watch that in front of his team.”
Alabama: Likely NIT bound. Johnson made very clear Alabama will accept a berth, “We need as many games as we can get.”
Kentucky: A sixth straight semifinal on Saturday.
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