John Calipari was happy with the way his young Kentucky team performed in its SEC tournament opener.
While his freshmen played well under pressure, they now need to avoid being pushed around again by Alabama.
The 15th-ranked Wildcats look to avenge an earlier loss to the Crimson Tide when they meet in Saturday's semifinals at the Georgia Dome.
Kentucky (23-8) never trailed in Friday's 75-66 win over Mississippi, but the outcome was in doubt until the final minute. Brandon Knight made five free throws in the final 41 seconds to help the defending tournament champion Wildcats hold off a Rebels team that trailed by two points with less than 90 seconds remaining.
"First tournament game for a young team, happy we get out with a win," Calipari said. "I kept telling them late in the game, I'm really happy this is a close game because we're going to be in some other ones. And we need this."
Knight had 17 points, six rebounds and six assists, and fellow freshman Doron Lamb scored 19 to lead the Wildcats to their sixth win in seven games.
Calipari believes his team, which features three freshmen in the starting lineup, has come a long way since suffering a 68-66 loss at Alabama (21-10) on Jan. 18.
Kentucky rallied from 20 points down with 15:30 remaining in that game and had a chance to win, but freshman Terrence Jones missed a 3-pointer from midcourt at the buzzer.
Although the Wildcats nearly pulled it out, Calipari still feels his team was blown out.
"Alabama had us down 20 down there," he said after Friday's win. "Don't look at the final score. They smashed us. And we made a little run and made some shots. So we're going against a team that smashed us."
Following that loss, Calipari said his team was "manhandled."
The Crimson Tide, the conference leaders in scoring defense at 58.8 points per game and field goal defense at 38.0 percent, limited the Wildcats to 37.7 percent shooting and outrebounded them 41-34. Lamb finished with 16 points but missed 9 of 14 shots, while Knight scored 14 while missing 10 of 15.
Alabama was led by its frontcourt, with JaMychal Green finishing with 18 points and 11 rebounds and fellow forward Tony Mitchell scoring 15 and grabbing seven boards.
"They're really physical, they're really great defensively," Calipari said. "We know how hard it's going to be."
Calipari, though, may like his team's chances in the rematch. He said the Wildcats have improved "as much as any team, maybe more than any team in the country."
The Crimson Tide needed an improbable comeback to reach the SEC tournament semifinals for the first time since 2005.
Alabama rallied from 14 points down in the final seven minutes of regulation and stunned Georgia with a 65-59 overtime victory Friday.
Green had 20 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Crimson Tide, who lucked out when Bulldogs coach Mark Fox signaled timeout just before Dustin Ware hit what would have been a winning 3-pointer just ahead of the buzzer at the end of regulation.
The win gave Alabama a significant boost in earning an NCAA tournament berth.
"The fight our guys showed was incredible," coach Anthony Grant said. "We were promised one game. We want to be in for the duration."
The Crimson Tide, who lost 73-67 to Kentucky in last season's quarterfinals, haven't advanced to the SEC title game since losing to Mississippi State in 2002.