NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — De'Aaron Fox took charge and made plays during a critical stretch on the way to a career performance. An early-morning shootaround helped remedy Malik Monk's recent scoring woes.
Those initiatives by Kentucky's talented freshmen guard duo positioned the No. 8 Wildcats to claim another Southeastern Conference Tournament championship.
Fox scored a career-high 28 points, including nine straight down the stretch, and Malik Monk added 20 to lift Kentucky past Alabama 79-74 in the SEC Tournament semifinal on Saturday.
The Wildcats shot 52 percent from the floor and 69 percent from the line after missing numerous chances that left openings for the pesky Crimson Tide to stay close. But Kentucky converted chances when needed, hitting 13 of 17 free throws in the final six minutes with Fox making 5 of 7 in particular and 11 of 15 overall.
Fox also converted a pair of 3-point plays — the biggest of which gave Kentucky a 67-62 lead with 3:07 remaining — en route to 19 points after halftime.
"I just kept getting the plays and they kept the ball in my hands," said Fox, who made 8 of 12 shots. "When I know the coach is trusting me and my teammates are trusting me to keep attacking, doing what you're doing, all I've got to do is just make the play."
After combining for just eight points the previous two games, Monk snapped out of his funk to hit 6 of 14 from the field. Those baskets included a pair of 3-pointers that turned a 17-7 first-half deficit into a 33-32 lead.
Monk later followed a Fox jumper with two free throws with 1:13 left.
"I knew I had to get up and execute for the team," Monk said of the early practice. "If I get shots before the game, I just have a good game or have a better flow."
Bam Adebayo had 10 points and nine rebounds to send top-seeded Kentucky (28-5) to Sunday's championship game against No. 3 seed Arkansas, which beat Vanderbilt 76-62 in the other semifinal. The Wildcats will face the Razorbacks for the second time in three seasons in pursuit of their third consecutive SEC title.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) March 11, 2017
Dazon Ingram had 17 points for No. 5 seed Alabama (19-14), which outrebounded Kentucky 33-28. But the Crimson Tide couldn't get the basket when needed to overcome the Wildcats, who came through in the clutch for their 10th straight win.
"Give Kentucky credit," Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. "They made some big shots."
THE BIG PICTURE
Alabama: The Crimson Tide did everything they needed to do, outscoring Kentucky 46-24 in the paint, its bench 22-9 and shooting 53 percent after halftime. For a while the SEC's top scoring defense (64.1 points) seemed headed toward keeping Kentucky in check before sending the Wildcats to the foul line.
Kentucky: Another slow start dug another early hole before the Wildcats answered with 11 straight points for the lead. They overcame another deficit in the second with timely stops along with several 3-point plays. Playing mistake-free ball might have been the biggest factor late, following a 10-turnover first half with just three in the second.
Kentucky continues to get solid production from seniors such as Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins, who combined for 13 points. Willis made a couple a 3-pointers, and Hawkins added two key baskets.
"It's nice to have him," coach John Calipari said of Hawkins. "It's nice to have Derek. It's nice to have Mychal (Mulder)."
De'Aaron Fox began the game wearing blue Nikes that didn't quite grip as planned, resulting in a couple of slips and traveling calls. He seemed much better after switching back to gray high tops, which he has frequently worn lately.
Alabama: Awaits postseason invitation.
Kentucky: Faces Vanderbilt-Arkansas winner in Sunday's championship.