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Loss raises red flags, signs of encouragement

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Maybe this will be the final learning lesson; the last-minute cram for the final exam; one final dose of reality before the march to the ultimate dream.

Or maybe this team is that young and that inexperienced, two red flags head coach John Calipari has pointed to all season long. Maybe Saturday's 74-65 loss to No. 19/17 Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena, UK's second defeat of the season, was the telling sign of a team that isn't as surefire of a pick to make the Final Four as some would like to think.

Either way, valiant comeback or not, the No. 2 UK men's basketball team can't afford to spot teams 19 points in three weeks for the NCAA Tournament and expect to stay alive very long.

"What we've got to figure out is 40 minutes of how we play when we're trying to win a game," head coach John Calipari said. "They've never done that before. They were AAU players seven months ago. They played in Vegas, three games, and so they just play when they feel like it. Well you can't do that because it's one and done here in three weeks."

The good news, for now, is the season hasn't come to that point yet. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't mean a whole lot. Tennessee, as Calipari alluded to in his postgame news conference, was a "desperate" team looking for a marquee win.

For the time being, it prevents UK from claiming a share of its 44th Southeastern Conference title and damages the Cats' chance at the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Nonetheless, both goals are still within arm's reach.

What the loss did do was raise some potentially serious red flags all the while providing more evidence as to why this team could be so scary come March. All things considered, was Saturday's second loss of the season a good loss or a bad loss?

"This was a great lesson," Calipari said. "I told them this was great for us. Losing this will wake us. This was not a bad thing. This was a good thing."

Well, for the most part. There was the brutally hostile environment, back-and-forth officiating, abysmal shooting and 19-point deficit the Cats had to overcome.

And yet UK had a chance in the waning minutes to squeak out another tough victory on the road. If UK can make that kind of comeback under those circumstances, what's not to like in March?

"We don't quit," Calipari said. "That's all I can ask from my team."

Down nearly three touchdowns as late as the 14:05 mark in the second half, UK stormed back in the game behind a second-half surge from John Wall. The freshman point guard rebounded from a 1-of-8 first half to lead UK on a 9-0 run.

After hitting Eric Bledsoe with an assist, Wall went on a personal 7-0 run, doing most of his damage with transition slicing layups. His "and one" bank shot with 12:40 left in the game evoked an intimidating arm flex and roar from the Kentucky faithful. It was the kind of swagger you see with Final Four teams.

"We were struggling making shots so once we got the opportunity (coach) said to grab the rebound and just push it and try to get to the basket," said Wall, who finished with a team-high 19 points and five assists.

Wall followed with pass to Patrick Patterson to cut the lead to eight for the first time since late in the first half. Just like that, it was game on.

Sophomore guard Darius Miller, who Calipari credited with keeping UK in the game, had seven key points in the final minutes before Wall eventually capped the methodical comeback with a full-court assist to Cousins to tie the game at 65-65 with 2:10 to play.

"He was unbelievable," Calipari said of Wall.

For that second-half spurt, he looked the part of the type of general UK will need in three weeks. But, like the totality of the game, he wasn't without his faults either.

Wall committed an alarming five turnovers, two of which came in the final minutes after the Cats had tied the game. His charge on Brian Williams all but sealed UK's fate.

Still, without Wall, the Cats are never back in Saturday's game. He helped UK overcome several disappointments that could turn into season-enders come March.

The most alarming of them all was the porous 3-point shooting. For the fourth game a row, UK couldn't throw it in the ocean. The Cats hit just 2-of-22 shots from behind the arc and have now hit just 12-of-73 perimeter shots (16.4 percent) over the last four contests.

That won't get it done, especially when teams go to a zone in the Big Dance.

"You are what your stats say, you are what your record is and as a player you what your stats say," Calipari said. "My thing is getting guys in the gym more. We don't practice long hours right now. Get in the gym and shoot if you want to play. You can't miss them all. You don't have to make them all. Just make a few."

A good chunk of the frigid shooting came from guards Eric Bledsoe (3-of-10 overall) and Darnell Dodson (0-of-5 overall), who combined to shoot just 1-of-10 from the perimeter. Those two would be the easiest guesses as to who Calipari referred to as sleepwalking during the game. You could also throw sophomore guard DeAndre Liggins (two points in 10 minutes) or freshman center Daniel Orton (one points in 13 minutes) in that mix as well.

"We had two guys, and I'm not going to mention names (because) you probably know, they were sleeping," said Calipari, who was so frustrated during one timeout early in the first half that he cut his hand slamming it on his clipboard. "They were sleeping during the whole game. They didn't have any energy. When you're in that mode during the game you can't change. That's who you are then."

That's the sign of a more troubling problem: a lack of energy. Whether it was youth, the rigors of the road or an arduous Thursday-Saturday turnaround, UK failed to show up for much of the first half and fell behind 18-4 after an 18-0 Tennessee run.

"We just came out with no energy," said Cousins, who notched his 18th double-double (15 points and 14 rebounds) of the season. "They came out early and hit us in the mouth. They came out with better intensity than we did and it showed."

Eventually UK responded and got back in the game, but it ultimately wasn't enough. In that respect, it's tough to gauge whether one should be encouraged by the feisty comeback or disappointed by the line of red flags that buried them in the first place.

"I think this loss is another good loss for us," Wall said.

Only time will tell.

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4 Comments

I love this team. They have been a pleasure to watch during the season and I appreciate that they have brought back the excitement to UK basketball. Down 19 points today they did not give up, but maybe ran out of gas after tying the game at 65. I don't like hearing the excuse of a short turn around though. Several of these guys plan to leave after this season to go to the NBA. I don't doubt that their decision to move on is the right one, but in the NBA they play several games a week and on consecutive nights. Better get in shape now as there won't be time later.

The only "good loss" that I know of is the other guy.

Calipari's comments were absolutely correct. The Big Blue Nation showed perseverence to erase a 19 pt deficit and had a chance to pull out a win. Even though everyone played a part in the loss, I feel that the critical error by Darius Miller's mishandling of the rock underneath the Vol's basket was crucial. Why did he put the ball on the floor? That one turnover shifted the momentum back to Tennessee and the rest is history. I am sure that the Wildcats will use this loss to their advantage and learn from it. I am confident that Coach will have them ready to play the next game. At times they play recklessly and turnovers are the result. I would like to see them take care of the ball better on offensive possesions. I was expecting them to drive to the basket and possibly drawing fouls in the process in the final minutes of the contest but it didn't happen. The perimeter shots weren't falling so ,in my own opinion, this would had been the most inevitable choice. Well,Big Blue,it's time to lick your wounds and get back to what us devoted fans are used to. Winning Wildcat basketball. Go BBN!!!

Cats need a good shooting coach. The poor shooting result is the result of poor shooting technique and fundamentals. Wall and Bledsoe shoot too much from a "squat" instead of elevating and releasing the ball correctly. Dodson drifts to the left instead of squaring up. Miller has that hitch. No way those guys are ever going to have acceptable shooting % unless they improve their form and technique. Patterson continues to just disappear in too many games. Cats need his 2nd South Carolina performance every night. Wall and Bledsoe turnovers are killers; way too late in the season to be having those turnovers.

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Recent Comments

  • Bob H: Cats need a good shooting coach. The poor shooting result is the result of poor shooting technique and fundamentals. Wall read more
  • charles burnette: Calipari's comments were absolutely correct. The Big Blue Nation showed perseverence to erase a 19 pt deficit and had a read more
  • David Spence: The only "good loss" that I know of is the other guy. read more
  • Dale Sine: I love this team. They have been a pleasure to watch during the season and I appreciate that they have read more