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Cats hope to use SEC Tournament loss as motivation for NCAAs

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Darius Miller had 16 points in UK's 71-64 loss to Vanderbilt in the finals of the SEC Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Darius Miller had 16 points in UK's 71-64 loss to Vanderbilt in the finals of the SEC Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)

In an effort to bring you the most comprehensive coverage of the Kentucky basketball team's postseason run, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be teaming up throughout UK's journey in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. You can find stories on the team at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog.

NEW ORLEANS - As Kentucky reeled off 24 straight wins, the debate among Big Blue fans and analysts everywhere, especially during the latter point, focused on whether the top-ranked Wildcats needed to lose a game before trying to win an eighth national championship.

No team has won a national title on a winning streak of more than 19 games since Indiana went a perfect 32-0 in 1976 to win the national championship. Based off that stat - a law of averages concept - analysts will tell you it's in UK's best interest to lose one before heading to the NCAA Tournament.

That line of thinking is about to be put to the test.

Kentucky's nation-long 24-game winning streak came to an end on Sunday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament finals. In UK's second heavyweight fight, Vandy used a 17-4 to close the game and win 71-64.

Vandy's first SEC championship since 1951 denied UK its 28th league title and third in a row.

"We just missed shots, folks," John Calipari said. "These kids are not machines. They're not computers. And it's not automatic. How about this? Maybe now everybody we'll realize we're not invincible. We're like everybody else out there. We're going to have to execute, we're going to have to play hard, we're going to have to play with some aggressiveness and intensity or else we'll get beat."

Said Anthony Davis: "To lose here, especially in a championship when we were this close to winning it all, it just hurts. I hope we can take this loss, learn from it and use it as motivation for the (NCAA) Tournament."

Over the course of UK's winning streak, teams across the country have dealt their best blow to UK. And every time the Cats had responded with dominating performances or elite finishes.

Just when it looked like Kentucky (32-2) was going to close the game on another one of its patented runs, the Cats went cold and Vanderbilt (24-10) manufactured the type of run that has escaped its grasp all season long.

Leading 62-55 with 5:23 to go, UK scored just two points the rest of the way as the Commodores stole momentum and the championship.

"We had our chances, we had our shots," Coach Cal said. "We didn't make them. You've got to give them credit. That game was over and then all of a sudden it's like basket, basket, basket."

The Cats didn't make a field goal for the final 8:04 of the game, missing their final 13 attempts. One of the strongest free-throw shooting teams in the country, UK also missed three of its final six free throws.

"We missed every single shot down the stretch," Calipari said. "That's what we haven't done all year. If we had to do it all over again, I would have gone inside more, but I'm confident in Darius (Miller) and Doron (Lamb) shooting."

Vanderbilt's big three of Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli combined for 52 points. The Commodores, one of the best 3-points shooting teams in the country, hit six treys, but Vanderbilt did a lot of its damage inside, scoring 30 points in the paint.

"They got anything they wanted in the post," Davis said. "They got good position and it was hard for us to find around it. It came to the point where we were just trying to front, and we got ourselves deep in the post."

Vanderbilt's focus on going inside got UK into foul trouble. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist fouled out with 2:51 to go and Davis was on the bench for a while in the first half with two fouls.

"It limits you a lot," Davis said. "I didn't want to pick up any stupid fouls, especially when I was in foul trouble. It kind of hurt my team having to sit the bench with a couple of minutes left. Guys know they can drive the lane."

If there's a positive to take out of the loss, it's the return of senior Darius Miller. Last year's SEC Tournament MVP scored zero points in the first two games of the tournament and his confidence appeared to be wavering with the inability to make a bucket.

Sensing his teammate needed a lift, Kidd-Gilchrist pulled a selfless act by asking Coach Cal to start Miller in his place. The move restored Miller's confidence as he scored 16 points, dished out four assists and made three steals.

"That really meant a lot to me, showed me the support he gave me, and Coach allowing me to start today gave me support," Miller said. "It gave me a lot of confidence."

Miller looked like he was going to be the star of the championship for a second straight year as he led several of UK's scoring runs and halted a couple of Vandy's.

But ultimately Kentucky couldn't find the bottom of the basket. UK shot 35.9 percent from the game, including 6 for 28 from 3.

"I feel bad (for our fans)," Calipari said. "I'm glad they saw all three games, so they should be happy. I know they wanted the win, but we did we're supposed to do.

Terrence Jones (12 points, 11 rebounds) and Davis (12 points, 10 rebounds) both recorded double-doubles in making the SEC All-Tournament team.

Now, the question is, will the loss refocus the Cats and ultimately be the final stumbling point, the final motivation they need for an eighth national championship?

The last time Kentucky played in the SEC Tournament championship game and lost in New Orleans in 1996, the Cats stormed through the NCAA Tournament for a national title. As the story goes, that loss to Mississippi State was the inspiration behind the run.

"We'll just use this as motivation for the tournament," Jones said. "That (Indiana) loss was a long time ago. This one brings us back to reality. Coach feels we were being arrogant and just not respecting teams like we were in the beginning."

And if you're really into some Twilight Zone stuff - or just think history tells the story - the last time Vanderbilt won an SEC championship was 1951. That year the Commodores met UK in the finals and beat the Cats. UK had just one loss prior to that point, by a mere point.

Sound like Indiana? Sound like this team?

Adolph Rupp's team went on to win the national championship that year.

"I think our confidence is still here," Davis said. "We haven't lost any confidence. We just go back in the gym, play hard at practice and get ready for the tournament."

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