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Final Four loss drives Cats back

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Terrence Jones and UK fell to Connecticut in last season's national semifinal. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Terrence Jones and UK fell to Connecticut in last season's national semifinal. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In an effort to bring you the most comprehensive coverage of the Kentucky basketball team's postseason run, 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 and

In the immediate aftermath of trouncing Baylor and clinching a second straight berth to the Final Four, the Kentucky Wildcats celebrated. They smiled, hugged, clapped and danced. John Calipari even allowed himself to relax, smile and thank the fans.

The players climbed the ladder and took a snip from the net as fans chanted "Go Big Blue," and Darius Miller said they would take time to relish the moment that night before moving on to Louisville.

But there was something about the celebration that just didn't look the same. It felt subdued, ordinary almost.

Upon returning home Sunday evening to hundreds of fans at the airport and another horde at the Wildcat Lodge, Doron Lamb showed his appreciation for the fans before heading inside. He didn't celebrate after.

 "I just went to my friend's house and watched TV," the sophomore guard said.

Watched TV? What gives?

Sure, Lamb has been here before, making an unexpected trip to the Final Four as a No. 4 seed last season. And yeah, just about everyone hoped and expected the Cats to make it back to the national semifinals this year.

But still, it's the Final Four, a place that even a hallowed program like UK has been fortunate enough to make 15 times.

"We're not satisfied yet," freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said.

The Wildcats want more.

Stung by the loss of last year's Final Four, the returning players said they've been driven to get back to the national semifinals and capitalize on the chance that was theirs for the taking last season. Whether it was the sheer satisfaction of just making it that far or the big stage taking them by surprise, Kentucky had a letdown against Connecticut and let a golden opportunity slip by.

"I haven't gotten over it," sophomore forward Terrence Jones said. "I won't get over it until I reach farther than that. It hurt me. I couldn't leave college because of that. I wanted to know what it felt like to play in that last game."

Suggesting the loss to UConn has been season-long motivation for a 36-2 run, Miller said the heartbreak has been like an itch he hasn't been able to scratch until now.

"It was extremely hard," Miller said. "We felt like we gave it our all the whole year. We worked really hard that year and just not being able to win the championship, it kind of messed with us a little bit. It's been lingering in the back our mind all year. We wanted to get back here, and we have. Now we just want to finish it out."

What exactly happened against Connecticut is still up for debate. The Cats had played so well in the previous two games against Ohio State and North Carolina that they had suddenly gone from tournament underdogs to Final Four favorites.

But when they took the floor in Houston and the ball was thrown up, it took Coach Cal all of five minutes to figure out that something wasn't right.

"Something got us off kilter because we didn't play very well," Calipari said. "What happened that we went out - I don't want to say gun shy - but we just weren't the same team that left New Jersey."

Was it the satisfaction of being there in a season in which the Cats could hardly win a road game in their own conference? Was it the big stage - quite literally one in the center of the gargantuan Reliant Stadium - and the bright lights of the Final Four?

Or was is something else, like the distractions of a championship-craving fan base, the media obligations of making it to such a grand stage, or even the disturbances of family members and friends requesting tickets that are coming along for the ride?

Coach Cal planned to ask his returning players Tuesday what they thought happened, but he's already changed some of the preparation from last season. He had everyone take care of their ticket requests Sunday night, and he will not do any other media interviews for the game other than his NCAA-mandated responsibilities at the Final Four. Also, nobody - no friends, no family members, no one, Coach Cal said - will be allowed on the players' floor at the team hotel this week.

"If they want to meet family or friends, you go down in the lobby," Calipari said. "If you need to go out for something, go with a player, take a security person with you. We're handling it like we should be."

However, Coach Cal was not expressing disappointment of a letdown last year.

 "By the end of the season, for them to put themselves in that position, I was ecstatic," Calipari said. "When they dropped the ball in that last game - and we all dropped it; obviously preparation was bad; something wasn't right - I felt bad for them, (but) I wasn't mad. I was so proud of what they were able to do with that season I can't even begin to tell you."

Kentucky has sliced through this season with a mentality that every game is "just another game," but the stakes have clearly been raised now. Coach Cal is using the same approach with his players that he has throughout the postseason, telling them not to worry about the tournament and treat it as another game, but Lamb admitted that everything they've been through this season has been building to this point.

"We've been working hard since the summertime really, just preparing for this moment," Lamb said. "It's finally here. We made it, so we've got to go out there and try to finish out the season strong."

Does that mean the season should be deemed a failure if UK can't cash in at another chance at a title? Coach Cal says no, pointing to the anything can happen model in a one-game series while downplaying the end-all feeling that some fans are experiencing with Louisville standing in the way.

"The other teams in the Final Four, they all have good players," Calipari said.

Clearly, though, the players don't want to feel the pain of another loss.

"We know how it feels to lose, especially when you're so close," Miller said. "We don't want to experience it again."

They want another chance to dance, another opportunity to walk up the ladder and take a snip of the net. They want to know what it really feels like to celebrate.

"We want a championship really bad," Miller said. "Like I've been saying all year, that's been our main goal all year. That's all we want."

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