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Disappointing end but a 'hell of a season'

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post-presser_web.jpgHOUSTON -- At this time of the year, there's hardly any satisfaction in coming this far.

This Kentucky team, squeezed in between last year's super team and next year's sensational recruiting class, wasn't supposed to be in Houston. But judging by Terrence Jones' low-pitched voice, Brandon Knight's hung head and Josh Harrellson's bloodshot eyes, that hardly mattered.

This one hurt just as much as last season's. It may have hurt even more.

"When it ends," head coach John Calipari said, "you fall off a cliff."

It feels like falling off a cliff this year because Kentucky was oh so agonizingly close. Written off in late February as a team that couldn't win road games and wilted at the sign of a close contest, UK started to thrive away from home, came up clutch in the postseason and won 10 straight games into an unlikely Final Four berth.

But there they were Saturday night at Reliant Stadium in Houston in front of a very pro and Final Four record crowd of 75,421. There they were as the sudden favorites of an improbable group of four teams to cut down the nets.

UK had risen to the cliff.

Making its first Final Four appearance since 1998, Kentucky seemed destined to claim its eighth national title. After everything the Cats had been through this season, to make the type of run they did under unforeseen circumstances, why not this year? Oddly, it just felt like some sort of kooky fate.

But kooky got twisted and then just downright mean Saturday night. In gut-wrenching fashion, the program's best 3-point shooting team in school history couldn't hit a shot, making just 6-of-21 shots from the floor and 9-of-27 3-pointers. It brought back nightmares of last year's West Virginia loss.

"I thought we were going to win until the buzzer went off," said Jones, one of the few Wildcats to consistently hit shots. "We worked hard the whole season and everybody fought. It's just tough having a bad shooting night."

Kentucky was 26-0 this season when holding opponents to 67 points or fewer and 47-0 under Calipari. The second-year UK coach thought his team could do even better this game and told his team it would win if it held UConn to 56 points.

Ironically, Connecticut finished right at Calipari's target, one point too much for UK.

Kentucky's payback tour also ended. After avenging losses to six different different teams, plus a payback win over West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, UK finally lost to an opponent twice this season.

"I'm really proud of these guys," Calipari said. "The way we played in that first half, to give ourselves a chance to win the game ... as a coach, that's all you can ask of these young people -- give us a chance to win. They gave us a chance. We had our opportunity."

Kentucky may have missed out on a prime opportunity for what seems like a long overdue national title -- 13 going on 14 years at UK is an eternity -- but it didn't miss out on the chance to put a stamp on the turnaround last year's team started. From National Invitation Tournament to a Final Four in two years, clearly confidence in the program has been restored with Calipari at the helm.

Amazingly, it's been done with a lot of youth, a ton of development and a sprinkle of veterans like Harrellson.

"It's been amazing," said Harrellson, who played in his final career Kentucky game Saturday. "It's been a dream for me. I met great friends on the way. We got to a Final Four. I stepped my game up the last month and helped my teammates win games. It's been an honor for me to play with these guys and play for Coach Cal."

Harrellson, voice trembling, then started to fight back more tears. The sting of losing still overshadowed the ultimate realization that this group became one of the all-time favorite teams in school history and made people believe again in change.

"I couldn't be happier," Harrellson said. "We've got a great group of guys and they've all matured and they've matured with me. I couldn't be happier for what they've done and the legacy we've left behind."

UK_UCONN_4-2-11_web_12_cw.JPGAfter the game, a solemn Jones was asked what he's learned this season with everything that's happened.

"Improvement by self motivation," Jones said. "A lot of guys pushed themselves to be better teammates, to be better on the floor. A lot of guys made sacrifices to better the team. These are my brothers and I love them for that."

The changes the players made have been well documented in Kentucky's drastic turnaround, but hearing Jones tell it again makes you realize how unlikely, how special this group and this run was.

"I love Josh for working hard and going to practice 45 minutes early almost every day, fighting to get better," Jones said. (I love) DeAndre (Liggins) for being around us more and caring and defending and working hard for the team. (I love) Brandon (Knight) for running the team, and (I love) Doron (Lamb) for sacrificing not to shoot as much just to try to get more confidence for the older guys."

The season didn't end the way any of those guys hoped for when they started rewriting it a month ago, but the disappointment of one night can't overshadow the run of one incredible team.

"I think we had a hell of a season," Liggins said.

There's a lot of satisfaction in that.

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2 Comments

I hated the loss, but I love the Wildcats. I'm so proud of what you have accomplished (with class, I might add)this year. Don't hang your heads. Stand tall. You did so much better than anyone ever expected. You are special young men. I look forward to next year's team. Coach, you did OK too. Ha ha ha. GO WILDCATS!!!!!

Sitting in the stands in Houston (my first Final Four) Several thoughts crossed my mind on Saturday Night (1) How many Cats fans had made the LONG trip to Houston (2) How Coach Cal and DeAndre aknowledged the Big Blue Nation on the overhead screen and obvious testomony on how this team fells about their fans (the feeling is SO MUTUAL) (3) How hard this team fought not just Saturday but all year long as they captured the respect and hearts of all us (4) How much pride I felt knowing this team and this coach had FINALLY put Kentucky basketball back where it belongs ON TOP. Heads up guys you represented us well. I loved the trip and will never forget the experience or this team. Thanks for the Memories!!!!!!

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