TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama built a big lead and then watched it shrink -- a familiar story of late for the Crimson Tide (No. 25 AP).
This time they tightened up the defense, kept hitting shots and fought off several rallies by Kentucky (No. 18 ESPN/USA Today; No. 20 AP) on Saturday for a 72-61 win, handing the Wildcats their third straight loss.
"We all knew it was a must-win," said the Tide's Richard Hendrix, who had 16 points and nine rebounds. "When they came out and gave us their best shot, we were able to bounce back. We stayed poised and knocked down our shots.
"I think we all feel we're playing our best basketball of late, it's just unfortunate we lost our last two games."
The Tide (19-7, 6-6 Southeastern Conference) never trailed and scored the game's final seven points to avoid blowing a second-half lead for the third straight game.
Quiet for much of the game, Joe Crawford nearly brought Kentucky (18-8, 7-5) back from an 11-point deficit in the final 4:37. He scored 10 of 11 points for the Wildcats, including a 3-pointer that cut Alabama's lead to 65-61 with 1:12 left.
Ronald Steele then hit two free throws and a weird play hurt Kentucky. Ramel Bradley lofted a shot that went in, but the basket was waved off after teammate Randolph Morris accidentally tapped it back out.
"I just hit it inadvertently," Morris said. "I didn't even know that call was possible."
Brandon Hollinger hit two more free throws with 38 seconds left to put the game away.
Alabama had squandered an 18-point first-half lead before losing at No. 1 Florida on Wednesday night and had a similar letdown against Mississippi, but held firm this time.
Steele finished with 15 points and seven assists, and went 3-for-4 from 3-point range in one of his better games this season. Mykal Riley added 12 points.
Crawford had 15 of his 17 points in the second half for the Wildcats, who scored a season-low 22 in the first half. Morris added 15 points and Bradley 12.
Freshman Justin Tubbs had nine points as the Tide's Mark Gottfried inserted a three-guard lineup for long stretches, effectively dealing with Kentucky's full-court pressure.
For the most part, the Tide contained Bradley, Crawford and the rest of Kentucky's outside shooters. The Wildcats were just 5-of-22 from 3-point range.
That made it hard for Kentucky to complete several comeback attempts.
"We're just not playing the way we should right now," Bradley said. "It's the same pattern, we fall behind and try to come back. Today was even worse.
"We've lost three in a row. It's devastating. We're way, way better than this."
The Wildcats twice cut a 13-point deficit down to two in the second half, the last on Jodie Meeks' basket and free throw to make it 48-46 with 7:28 left.
The Tide scored the next nine points, capped by two big plays from Hendrix. He grabbed a loose ball around the basket for a dunk and then drove for a reverse layup for the 11-point cushion.
"I thought in the second half we really defended better, and that's something we haven't been doing really well at times this year," Gottfried said.
The Wildcats also had 17 turnovers, 10 on Alabama steals.
"Turnovers and everything else hurt us in this game," Smith said. "We're trying find a way to win some of these games. We have a tendency to dig ourselves a hole and then we battle our way back and don't play with the intelligence that we need to play with in clutch situations."
Morris wasn't pleased with his effort or focus. He had seven rebounds and four blocked shots, but committed eight turnovers.
"Obviously it wasn't my day," he said. "I wasn't executing and I wasn't into the game mentally. Turnovers, not being aggressive, just playing lackadaisical."
Alabama is hoping the win will keep the team's season-long presence in the Top 25 intact.
The Wildcats trailed 30-22 at halftime, which represented a comeback from a horrible start.
Kentucky's only field goal of the first 9:55 was a breakaway dunk by Ramon Harris. The Wildcats got few open looks at the basket in a 1-for-9 shooting start to fall behind 15-2.
Bradley hit a 3-pointer and another long jumper in the final 2 minutes for his only points of the half. Alabama didn't make a basket over the final 4 minutes.
But again, the Wildcats were left frustrated by their performance and tired of offering excuses.
"We know we're better, but talk is cheap," Morris said. "You can't just say it and then keep playing the way we are."