After weeks of speculation, bubble talk and mock brackets, the Cats took their fate out of their own hands and put their faith in the NCAA Tournament selection committee with a stunning 64-48 loss to Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
Now, all they can do is hope they are one of the final teams to earn an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament when the field is announced on Selection Sunday.
"I just hope we're the best of the bad right now," John Calipari said. "That's what I'm hoping."
A number of bubble teams UK was competing against for one of the final NCAA Tournament spots fell on Thursday and Friday, but will Kentucky's loss to a .500 team and one ranked outside the RPI top 100 be the final nail in the coffin of a team that has taken its fair share of blows this season?
"When you play a game like this, it hurts you," Coach Cal admitted. "The good news is everyone else is losing, too. At the end of the day it will shake out and I trust the committee to put the right teams in. ... We had an opportunity. It was in our hands to take it out of everybody's hands and we didn't take care of business."
UK (21-11), poised to become a lock for the Big Dance with a win over Vanderbilt on Friday, was dominated from start to finish in the third meeting with the Commodores.
Vandy shot 50.0 percent from the field, hit six of its first nine 3-point attempts and made all but one of its free throws. Meanwhile, UK shot just 34.6 percent from the field, had just two players score in double figures and failed to break the 50-point barrier for the first time in the Coach Cal era.
"We laid an egg and they played well," Calipari said.
In the postgame locker room, tears streamed down Ryan Harrow's face as he talked with reporters. Honorably, he answered every question the media had for him following his 2-for-15, four-turnover performance, but there was no disguising his utter disappointment with his game on Friday.
"It's my fault," Harrow said. "I apologize."
Once the questions ended, Harrow turned his chair and draped a towel over his head. He said he would take responsibility if the Cats don't make the NCAA Tournament, but quite frankly few of his teammates performed to their ability in one of the important games of the year.
"We all contribute to it," freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. "I get in foul trouble early and ... when that happens it seems like the whole energy comes down. I take fault for the energy level and I let the dude (Josh Henderson) bully me a little bit. But all in all, everybody did it. They all bullied everybody. It's definitely a team loss."
As Calipari warned Thursday night, his team was in a dogfight from the outset, but the Cats were at least hanging around early as Vanderbilt shot well from the perimeter for the second game in the row.
UK appeared to be fighting off the early Vanderbilt momentum when Harrow converted his first field-goal attempt with 6:22 to go in the first half, but that's when the wheels came off for the Cats.
After Kevin Bright knocked down one of five first-half 3-pointers for Vanderbilt and Harrow turned it over, Cauley-Stein was baited into a foul by Shelby Moats and went to the bench with two fouls. As Cauley-Stein sat on the sidelines, Kentucky's energy evaporated. The Commodores didn't waste any time taking advantage.
In the 4:53 that the 7-footer sat on the bench to end the first half, Vanderbilt outscored UK 16-7 to take a commanding 37-23 halftime lead.
Shots simply weren't falling, and as Vandy's lead grew, it appeared the pressure of the season slipping away snowballed.
"We didn't have anything go down for us throughout the whole game," said freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who led UK with 12 points. "It just keeps going down and down. And when that happens, sometimes it can bring the whole morale of the team down. It might have been something that happened here, but at the same time, we have to find ways to fight through when somebody's not having their best game and just be able to try to find different ways to pull out a win."
But as has been the case all season, when adversity hit, UK couldn't battle back. The lead only got bigger as the second half started, ballooning to as many as 21 points with 16:21 to play.
The Cats clawed back to within 11 on Goodwin's ferocious two-hand dunk with 12:46 to play, but they couldn't sustain the momentum of the 8-0 run.
"We had our chances," Calipari said. "It got to 11 and then we broke down two or three straight times. We miss a layup, miss a wide-open shot. All we needed to do is try to get it to six, seven, eight points and see what would happen. We never (could) and ... we were stabbing ourselves in the eye in most cases."
Kentucky went to a zone during the 8-0 run, but the Cats never went back to it.
Ultimately, UK posted one of its worst defensive efforts of the season. Playing against an offense that entered the day ranked 311st in the country in points per game, the Cats gave up 1.23 points per possession Friday, the third-worst mark of the season.
"That's been our problem the whole year is when we're not playing good on offense we kind of get down on ourselves and then our defense suffers for it," Cauley-Stein said.
Calipari said a lot of the credit goes to Vanderbilt and its late-season improvement. The 'Dores have won six of their last seven games after their quarterfinal victory.
"We begin every season by saying we want to play our best basketball at the end of the year," Vandy head coach Kevin Stallings said. "I think it's safe to say our team is doing that right now."
Kentucky, on the other hand, did not save its best for last. It could ultimately cost the team a spot in the Big Dance for the first time in the Coach Cal era.
"When we play - where everybody plays as a team everybody does what they're supposed to do - we can beat anybody," Cauley-Stein said. "We beat Florida. We beat Missouri. We beat Ole Miss. Missouri's in it; they're a lock. We beat them. Florida's a lock. We beat them. And Ole Miss is on the bubble, so we showed we can beat anybody."
The problem is the Cats have been reduced to lobbying for themselves and comparing their résumé with other teams. It isn't the position they wanted to put themselves in entering the most critical weekend of the season.
"We had our opportunities to keep it in our hands, but we didn't seize the moment and take advantage of it," Julius Mays said. "All we can do is sit and wait."