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January 23, 2013TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Sometimes it looks like he cares more. Sometimes it looks like he's the only guy giving it all he's got.
But Nerlens Noel isn't perfect.
Noel had eight points, 13 rebounds and seven blocked shots in Kentucky's 59-55 loss to Alabama Tuesday night at Coleman Coliseum, but afterward he shouldered as much blame as anyone.
Noel said he "owed it to my team" to play disciplined defense down the stretch, and he didn't.
Noel leaving his feet was the root of at least one critical Alabama play - a three-point play by Andrew Steele, who faked the UK freshman into the air, scored and drew a bump from Noel - in the second half.
"He still tried to steal balls and left his feet late and fouled and did stuff that he just didn't need to do," UK coach John Calipari. "We kept telling him, 'Stay down,' and he just kept leaving his feet. And it was critical in a game that's a one-bucket game with two minutes to go."
Noel's effort can't be questioned. It's late-game execution that hindered him Tuesday.
In that regard, he's hardly alone.
"Look, when you go on the road guys have got to play well," Calipari said. "We went to Auburn, our players played well. Ryan Harrow in the second half at Auburn played well. We didn't have it here. We just didn't have it."
Noel wasn't the only Wildcat who took steps back.
Archie Goodwin shot 2-for-12, driving into defenders and throwing up wild shots, an issue for most of the season. Harrow, who had six points, two assists and a turnover and shot 3-for-12 from the floor, had little resemblance to the player who directed a laser-precise offense in the second half Tuesday's win at Auburn.
"It's disappointing," forward Kyle Wiltjer said. "We definitely were coming off of a good game, so we wanted to keep making improvements, but we let ourself down. So I guess we've just got to work that much harder, get back to Lexington and just listen to Coach and keep trying to get better."
Calipari has been sending many of the same messages all season. Some of them, it appears, aren't getting through.
"Obviously, late in the game, we took chances, we left our feet, we fouled and we let them offensive rebound," Calipari said. "It's all that we talk about late in the game: Give them one tough shot, do not foul, do not leave your feet, and if they beat us that way, we'll go home and say, 'Hey '
"But they just haven't bought in, so we're still doing it. But this is a team that's growing and getting better. We showed signs and now we took a step back. It's a hard place to play."
Ups and downs
Wiltjer led Kentucky with 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting and seven rebounds, but his offensive explosiveness was halved.
The 6-foot-10 sophomore had 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the first half. In the second, he scored three points, shot 1-for-2 shooting and committed two of his three turnovers.
"They were very intense on defense (in the second half), closing out high when I got the ball, stuff like that," Wiltjer said.
Calipari said late in the game, Kentucky "reverted back to just throwing it to Kyle Wiltjer in the post to try to keep the game close to give us a chance to win." He scored on one second-half post move and drew two fouls, but Wiltjer - an 81.8-percent free-throw shooter entering the game - shot 1-for-3 from the line, including missing the front end of a one-and-one.
Calipari said Wiltjer's 35 minutes were "too many" - Kentucky played its second straight game without starting forward Willie Cauley-Stein, forcing an altered rotation - but lauded his play.
"He's a good low post player," Calipari said. "He's got good moves down there. We were just groping for anything to keep the game close. I was trying anything because when you have guard going 1-for-11 and the other going 2-for-12 and every shot blocked you're like, 'Where do we go?' So we went inside and he performed."
Every loss stings, Wiltjer said, but Tuesday's was made worse "because we knew we could have won the game."
Alabama claimed it late, but Kentucky might have let it get away early.
The Wildcats led 33-22 with 3:34 to play in the first half on a Goodwin layup and didn't score again. The Tide cut the lead to 33-24 at halftime and opened the second half on an 11-0 run to take the lead.
"We should have been up 15 (at the half)," Calipari said. "I mean, we turned it over. I called a timeout hoping we'd get a basket and my man (Julius Mays) shot with 20 seconds on the shot clock."
That was a three-pointer by Mays that Calipari said was supposed to be an elbow pick-and-roll.
"Again, discipline to know we're grinding this game out," Calipari said. "It's not about me getting a shot or making a play, it's about us. It's all part of the growth of a young team."