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Defining moments: Reliving the games that made 2013-14 a season to remember (part two)

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By Ken Howlett, CoachCal.com

Part one

Sky-high expectations at Kentucky pre-date the arrival of John Calipari.

Regardless of the number of returning starters, the number of high school All-Americans or the strength of the nation's collective college basketball talent, Kentucky fans dream of watching their team cut down the nets after the last game of the season.

Expecting greatness is as much as part of being a UK basketball fan as listening to Tom Leach with the call and donning Big Blue gear for each game. But the 2013-2014 season carried with it elevated expectations, even by Kentucky standards.

With a roster stacked with what some experts claimed to be the most talented and deep recruiting class in college basketball history, Kentucky fans could best be described as giddy as the summer sun faded in 2013 into fall, and the sweet sound of bouncing basketballs reverberated off the walls of the Joe Craft Center.

Things, of course, didn't go as planned as far as the expectations were concerned. UK lost far more games than many had predicted or hoped, and freshmen, as they often do, struggled.

But as we all came to learn during the magical run in the postseason, it was those losses and that adversity that made the season so special. Those trying times tested the Cats, made them stronger and came to define their gritty resolve when the season mattered most.

So, in one last reflection on an unforgettable season, we're looking back at the defining moments of the 2013-14 season. The story will come in three parts, all in chronological order.

Below is part two. You can read part one here.

4. Humble pie at LSU

After losing at North Carolina, Kentucky reeled off eight wins in nine games, rising to No. 11 in the Associated Press Top 25. A trip to Baton Rouge, La., would bring the team and its fans crashing back to earth.

Led by Johnny O'Bryant's 29 points - on 12-of-20 shooting -- and nine rebounds, the Tigers flat-out dismantled the Cats in nearly every aspect of the game. LSU outshot UK 50.8 to 43.8 percent; the Tigers had 11 turnovers to UK's 13; LSU had 15 assists to UK's eight; LSU had 11 steals to UK's six; and the Tigers recorded 11 blocks to UK's four.

Freshman stud Jordan Mickey terrorized the Cats with his athleticism, scoring 14 points to go along with six rebounds and five blocks, and Christian County product Anthony Hickey had his way at the point guard spot, dishing out six dimes versus zero turnovers.

The Tigers maintained a double-digit lead throughout most of the second half, stretching the lead to as many as 15 points on two occasions. Only a late-game letup by the Tigers allowed UK to make the final score respectable to those who didn't watch the carnage.

"We weren't ready for the physical part of the game," Calipari said after the 87-82 loss. "We weren't ready for the energy of the game and the viciousness of the game. They beat us to every 50-50 ball from the beginning of the game to the end. That is why they won the game."

Even though clearly upset with his team, Coach Cal wanted everyone to know that his squad was not finished growing.

"This team is in progress; it is all about the process," Cal said.  "The process we are at right now is, will we have the mental toughness to break through and be the kind of team we want to be? We didn't show it tonight."

But panic was beginning to set in among the fan base that the disappointing 2012-13 season was about to repeat itself.

5. Spiraling out of control

After the uninspiring effort at LSU, the Wildcats won seven-of-eight games, including solid wins against a good Ole Miss team, an impressive road victory over Missouri and the overtime triumph against LSU. All appeared to be defining moments - at the very least, turning points - in the season, but as is often the case with a team chock full of rookies, the good times didn't last.

Arkansas paid a visit to Rupp Arena on Feb. 27 and showed the Cats what it means to play defense, as the Razorbacks held UK to 26 made field goals on 76 shots (34.2 percent). Additionally, the Hogs forced 18 UK turnovers, and while committing 20 miscues themselves, Arkansas capitalized on the Cats' mistakes by outscoring UK 21-17 in points off turnovers.

The celebration after the overtime win against LSU looked like it was going to the be the start of a turnaround, but things were about to get much worse before they got better for the 2013-14 Wildcats. (Chet White, UK Athletics) The celebration after the overtime win against LSU looked like it was going to the be the start of a turnaround, but things were about to get much worse before they got better for the 2013-14 Wildcats. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In victory, Arkansas connected on 16-16 free throws, while the Cats struggled from the stripe making only 12-22 attempts. Midway through the first half, as if to affirm its terrible shooting night, UK missed eight consecutive shots, allowing the Razorbacks to build an-11 point lead.

UK battled back, though, and the tightly contested contest, which went into overtime, saw the Cats lead 57-52 with 4:43 left in regulation. But from that point forward, including the overtime period, the Hogs outscored the Cats 19-10 on their way to a 71-67 Rupp Arena win (Arkansas' first victory in Rupp since February of 1994).

"They beat us to loose balls," Coach Cal lamented after the game. "We missed 10 one-foot shots. We missed all free throws that mattered. We have a lead late, we're leaving timeouts (and) not executing. At one point I sat down and I would not speak to them. What are we running? 'I already told you in the timeout.'"

Kentucky's trip to South Carolina a few days later revealed a Big Blue ship quickly taking on water.

The Gamecocks came into the game sporting a 10-18 record, reason enough for Kentucky fans to believe their Cats would right the seemingly sinking ship, thwarting disaster. But UK did not respond to the bump and grind play of Carolina, instead the Wildcats sunk deeper into the abyss by once again failing to find the net with anything resembling consistency.

Making only 26.9 percent of its shots from the floor during a physical contest that was so frustrating that the Cats' coach was tossed from the ballgame, UK fell behind 51-39 with 10:23 remaining.

UK's huge 46-28 rebounding advantage could not offset the unfortunate shooting night the Wildcats experienced, and after a Randle 3-point play made the score 68-67 Carolina with 21 seconds remaining, the Gamecocks made their free throws and pulled out an improbably 72-67 shocker.

In coming back from 16 points down with 10:11 remaining, the Wildcats displayed a willingness to battle. But putting themselves in that position in the first place was Cal's cause for concern.

"After the game I told them how proud I was that they fought and got back in the game and gave themselves a chance to win," Calipari said. "But I said, 'You have to play the whole game that way.' Now, what happened early: The game was called like the old way. It was very physical -- body-checking, hip-checking -- and we thought that was an excuse to miss shots. You've got to know how the game is being called and play that way."

The setback dropped the preseason No. 1 team in the land to No. 25 in the AP poll. And yet, Aaron Harrison said after the game that Kentucky would still write "a great story."

As well all know now, that was the defining quote of the season. It seemed so unlikely at the time, but it somehow came true.

6. Starting fresh

After the late-season losses to Arkansas, South Carolina and a disastrous game in Gainesville, Fla., against Florida, Kentucky fans were not expecting much good to come out of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Cats were in a historic free-fall, certain to land with a disappointing thud.

But running onto the Georgia Dome floor from the locker room, the Wildcats possessed a bounce in their step unseen for at least a couple of months. Was it "The Tweak" Coach Cal had talked about earlier that week? Was it just the fresh start of a new season?

Whatever the case, the energy the players exuded was palpable, as the team seemed bound together by an electrified tether.

The free-flowing Wildcat mojo was replaced with an "uh oh" once the game began, as the Tigers shot out to a 22-14 lead after seven minutes of action. This game, though, would be the beginning of something special as the Cats rode the hot hand of Young and his 17 first-half points to a 28-10 run, eventually taking a 42-32 halftime lead.

The second half, though, would test the Cats -- again.

Cutting the lead to 52-49 on an Andre Stringer layup with 11:56 left in the game, LSU was poised to break the Cats' back once again. But this time, UK responded in rousing fashion.

Over the last 12 minutes of the contest, Kentucky's freshman crushed the Tigers 35-18 on its way to a resounding, confidence-building 85-67 victory.

The Cats, at least for one game, put it all together, as Andrew Harrison dished eight assists (thanks to the tweak, which Coach Cal said was to encourage UK's point guard to look to pass more often), Randle posted a double-double with 17 points and 16 boards, and Young led the squad with 21 points to go along with six rebounds and four assists.

"We've been through adversity all season," Randle said after the game. "It was kind of time for us to grow up, man up and just fight through that adversity."

Apparently simplifying the UK offense, Cal seemingly took the pressure off of his players.

"We didn't run as many plays because we had to get easy baskets," Young said. "(We're) just playing basketball, something we should have been doing for a while, and something we're going to do from here on out."

The Cats had the set the stage for a postseason to remember.

Check back next for the final defining moments of the 2013-14 season.

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