Julius Mays scored 13 points, including two game-sealing, free throws in UK's 61-57 Senior Day win over Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Julius Mays couldn't have asked for better way for it to end.
He stepped to the line to shoot two free throws with less than 10 seconds left in his regular-season home career. With Kentucky leading by two, he had a chance to all but salt away a victory in matchup with Florida called UK's "one-game season."
For anyone who has watched him during his season as a Wildcat, the result should come as no surprise. "Uncle Julius" stepped up, received a pass from the referee, wiped his hands on the soles of his shoes and calmly got the job done in a 61-57 victory.
"I had a lot of big moments in my college career, but that one was probably my biggest one because we needed that win more than we needed anything to keep our hopes alive," Mays said.
What a raucous crowd of 24,294 fans in Rupp Arena and television viewers at home didn't see was what happened in the huddle when Florida called timeout before the in-bounds pass that led to Mays being fouled. There, Mays told Coach Cal in no uncertain terms that he wanted the ball in his hands.
Calipari obliged, subbing in Kyle Wiltjer - who had sad most of the final minutes - and calling for two-man curl-and-pop action between him and Mays, anticipating a trap on Mays, UK's best foul shooter on the season at 83.6 percent entering Saturday's game. Mays took the floor intending to follow the plan, but saw an opening in the Gator defense and sprinted free.
"He walked out, I ain't curling anything, just get me the ball," Calipari said. "He went and got fouled, made both. He knew he was going to make them."
Sheepishly, Mays admitted to breaking off and doing his own thing - even though Coach Cal surely didn't mind this time.
"He actually didn't call the play how I ran it, but I wanted that ball and I wanted to shoot the free throws," said Mays, who finished with 13 points and three 3-pointers.
Mays will forever have the memory of delivering in a situation with UK's NCAA Tournament life on the line, but the way his teammates responded throughout the Cats' upset of the No. 11/9 Gators might be an even more lasting takeaway.
In his short Kentucky career, Mays has fashioned himself into a leader of his young team. To a man, his teammates express respect for their elder - who is working toward a graduate degree - and appreciation for his presence. But heading into his final home game, Mays made it clear he would not accept anything short of supreme effort from those surrounding him, regardless of whether it might lose him a friend or two.
But ultimately, that probably only strengthened Mays' bond with his younger teammates.
"I think they know when I got them, I only want to win," Mays said. "I only want to see them do their best. Even though we had a time when it felt like guys were going to let go of the rope, but I was holding guys accountable and if you couldn't get it done, you couldn't be in the game."
From the opening tip, the Cats made their presence known. They jumped out to a 4-0 lead, forcing a Florida timeout within the game's first minute and eventually grabbing an 11-2 advantage. But as Final Four contenders are wont to do, the Gators consistently battled back. Even so UK never wilted, refusing to give in at points when they likely would have in other games this season.
"I think they grew up," Mays said. "They didn't have any choice. They knew it was do or die and we needed this win more than anything. They stepped up big and we came out with the win."
The biggest test came with 7:36 left in the second half. A 19-5 Florida run had put the Cats in a 57-50 hole and the outlook was bleak, but that's when they showed things would be different on this day. Over the game's final 14 possessions, UK held the nation's fourth-most efficient offense according to kenpom.com scoreless. The Cats forced five turnovers as Florida missed its final 11 shots, opening the door for Mays' free throws.
"It showed that we can play defense and we can defend really well when we want to," Mays said. "And they had times when they could score, but Willie's (Cauley-Stein) presence in there, I think it scared them. It made them alter shots and just throw it at the rim and we came up with big rebounds."
Cauley-Stein played all but one second of that game-ending 11-0 run and, incredibly, he played all but one second of the final 11:15 with four fouls. His numbers in 25 foul-plagued minutes (six points, eight rebounds and four blocks) aren't his best of the season, but at no point has his impact been so keenly felt as UK outscored Florida by 12 points when Cauley-Stein was on the floor.
"He just brought unbelievable energy," said Archie Goodwin, who led the Cats with four steals and 16 points, six of which came during the final 5:34. "The first couple of possessions he got a couple big blocks. Throughout the game he was able to withstand his energy. There were a couple times he had a couple plays where he fell asleep when he gave up two 3s, but he made up for it. To play with four fouls like he did at the end was huge."
Equally huge was the play of Alex Poythress. After the freshman forward made the kind of mistake that has oftentimes derailed him in failing to execute a play on offense out of a timeout, his teammates and coaches got after him. You can guess who the first one to approach him was.
"What I said to him is between he and I and he responded really well," Mays said. "He tends sometimes to kind of stray away and he gets down on himself. You expect that from a young guy, but tonight he responded. Other times in the season, he's got down on himself and he hasn't responded. But tonight he responded and we really needed it."
Instead of retreating into his shell, Poythress asked to reenter the game. And during the final 7:36, he had three key rebounds (he had a career-best 12 on the day) and an assist to Goodwin.
"I made a mistake and I knew my team needed me out there," Poythress said, "so I just said 'Coach I'm good, I'll be fine out there, put me back in.' "
Poythress will now spend the coming days looking to ensure that carries over into the Southeastern Conference Tournament. UK clinched a double bye in the tournament by beating Florida and Ole Miss's victory over LSU ensures the Cats will be the No. 2 seed in Nashville, Tenn., and will also be looking to build on their signature win to this point.
"We can only take it a game at a time," Mays said. "We needed this win to keep our hopes alive and we got it. We're looking at getting a good seed in the SEC Tournament and we're not looking past anyone. We're just ready for our next opponent and that's what we're just going to be ready for, whoever that may be, and just be ready to compete."
Most senior moments last a little longer than a handful of seconds during two free throws four games before the end of the season, but for Twany Beckham, that's exactly what his moment was reduced to.
"I didn't think I'd be able to go into the game," Beckham said Friday before his Senior Day game against Florida. "I didn't know if I'd ever step on the court again with my injury."
A nagging back injury that led to surgery in January has kept Beckham off the court the rest of the season, but it didn't make his bear hug with John Calipari in the final seconds of the Mississippi State game or his career any less memorable.
The standing ovation he received against his former school as he checked in and then checked back out in between free throws was a moment he said he will never forget.
"Coach knew that against Florida, our last game of the season, would be a game we really needed," Beckham said. "He wasn't sure that I would be able to get in game at that time, so he wanted to see if I wanted to get into the game one last time, so I agreed to."
Not everything has gone according to plan for Beckham this season, but the Louisville native wouldn't take anything back from his time at Kentucky as he gets ready for Senior Day against Florida (Saturday at noon on CBS). He scored his first career UK points in the Lafayette game and saw a season-high nine minutes against Eastern Michigan.
"I still feel like I made the right decision," Beckham said. "I had my opportunities. I've always worked hard and injuries just kind of held me back."
While Beckham's final season didn't pan out as he would have hoped, Julius Mays' season has been a different flavor of bittersweet.
After transferring from Wright State, Mays was hoping to take a leap from the mid-major level and help the Cats on a second consecutive title run as one of the lone veterans on Coach Cal's youngest team to date.
Barring a late-season turnaround, those ambitions look like they could fall short, but it hasn't been from a lack of effort from Mays. The graduate student has averaged 9.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists during his only year at UK, including some outstanding performances at vital times for the young Wildcats.
"We would struggle (without him)," Calipari said.
Though UK's team goals may not come to fruition, "Uncle Julius" evolved into the veteran piece that everyone hoped he would be. That role couldn't have been more evident than his 24-point standout game against Missouri after the team had lost Nerlens Noel to a season-ending injury just three games earlier.
Needing a big win to bolster the Cats' postseason résumé, Mays lifted the Cats with clutch 3-pointers and key overtime free throws.
"I've done the best I can and hopefully I get a warm welcome or a standing ovation," Mays said of what he expects Saturday.
Although Beckham likely won't play alongside Mays on Saturday, walking through the senior hoop at Rupp and receiving his framed jersey will be a bit surreal for him. It was six years ago that Beckham played his final high school game at Ballard High School on the Rupp Arena floor in the Kentucky state tournament.
"It's going to be a sweet feeling," Beckham said. "Kentucky is my dream school. I don't want to leave. I haven't hung my head at all this year, just trying to stay positive through the whole process and be there for my teammates."
Despite this season's setbacks, Beckham is still looking forward and hopeful to keep basketball in his future.
"I'm just taking my time to try and get healthy," Beckham said. "I'm going to sit down with Coach after the season and see if I'm healthy and what options I'll have. If I can get healthy, I want to continue to play basketball."
Mays is also in a state of flux regarding his future with basketball. He will be walking away with a master's degree in kinesiology and health promotion after this year, but his experience at UK has sparked an interest in coaching.
"There has always been coaching interest," Mays said. "That's always been a thought. Right now I don't know if that's what I'll do, what I want to do, but I love the game and I honestly couldn't see myself being done with it if I stopped playing it. I feel like I have to be around it."
Although things haven't gone as planned for either player, Mays is hoping he can prolong his playing career just a little bit longer and propel it into the NCAA Tournament with a win over Florida.
"This is it for me," Mays said. "If these guys decide to come back, they've got the eligibility to come back. I'm done, so they can hate me for the rest of their life, but I'm leaving it all out there tomorrow."
Julius Mays will go through Senior Day festivities before UK's game against Florida on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
John Calipari broke out the big guns when it came to crafting a message entering Kentucky's final regular-season game.
Coming off a disappointing loss at Georgia and facing talk that the Wildcats had moved to the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, Coach Cal is telling his team they have a one-game season in front of them. It's up to the Cats how they respond.
"Now are you gonna fight like heck?" Calipari said. "Are you gonna play through the ups and downs of a game? Or are you gonna die?"
Coach Cal is still keeping basketball in perspective though. His family, the well-being of his players and his work in the community are of course still important to him and his morbid choice of words shouldn't tell you otherwise. Even so, the fact remains that this Kentucky team as presently constituted will likely soon cease to be if the Cats (20-10, 11-6 Southeastern Conference) can't find their way beginning with Saturday's game against SEC champion Florida (24-5, 14-3 SEC) at noon on CBS. That's where the melodramatic metaphors come in.
It's been a constant theme this season, UK's inability to respond in the face of adversity, to show consistent fight through the up and downs of a game. What Coach Cal is hoping is that the Cats will go the right direction now that their fight-or-flight response is truly being tested.
"But you can turn it on at any point. It's kind of like, 'Uh oh, if I go under one more time, I'm gonna drown. I better start swimming,' " Calipari said. "And all of a sudden you start swimming. The car's laying on you; it's on your leg. You gotta lift a 3,000-pound car. It's funny how you figure out how to lift it to get it off your leg so you don't die so you can get out of there and get help. This team can do what they choose to do."
Julius Mays knows which path he's choosing.
He has more experience than anyone on UK's roster and will play his final collegiate home game on Saturday. Mays came to Kentucky hoping to compete for championships and has poured himself into that goal during his lone season as a Wildcat. He's acutely aware of the fact that his time is running out, which has made UK's fits and starts in conference play all the more frustrating.
"I think as the season went on we had more guys buy in each time, but we just haven't had that full buy-in," Mays said. "When we think we do, we always take two steps back. Instead of progress, we always reverse. "
With each passing game, the Cats have paid the price more and more for their regression. Never before has a potential loss been as costly as the game against the Gators.
"So now it's come to the point where it's do or die for us," Mays said. "The guys that haven't fully bought in, they're going to have to hate me after tomorrow."
Mays simply won't accept anything else less than maximum effort. This kind of game, after all, is exactly why he chose to come to Lexington in the first place: high stakes, elite opponent, raucous environment, national television.
"When this kind of game comes, this is what being at Kentucky's about," Calipari said. "You're at home, you're gonna have 25,000 crazy fans with you, go ball. You don't hold anything back."
Though the Cats will have the vocal support of a capacity crowd in Rupp Arena for Senior Day - something they didn't have in back-to-back losses at Arkansas and Georgia - it won't be easy. The Gators handled UK less than a month ago, 69-52, and are on the shortlist of contenders for an NCAA championship.
His team has its life on the line, but Coach Cal wouldn't have it any other way.
"This is the game you gotta go and say, 'Alright, it's a one-game season. How are you gonna play?' " Calipari said. "And you're playing against a team that's vying for a one seed. They're playing for something too now. They're trying to get a one seed. So it's gonna be a hard ballgame, but that's what we need."
Some of you may have written this season off, but Joe B. Hall knows a team can still come to life after most have left it for dead.
In 1985, Kentucky lost three of its last five regular-season games and then lost its first game in the SEC Tournament to put the Wildcats squarely on the bubble, long before that word came to be used.
But the NCAA Selection Committee picked UK for the field and Kentucky proceeded to upset Washington and ninth-ranked UNLV before falling to St. John's in Hall's final game.
John Calipari's message to his team last night was, "Beat Florida and this all goes away" and he's right. Now, the Wildcats just have to do it.
Mathies leading UK Hoops into postseason
After two runs to the Elite Eight, is this the best chance the UK women's basketball team has had to get to a Final Four?
"They have a lot more depth - usable, quality depth, that can play the style that Matthew (Mitchell) wants to play," Jen Smith said on "The Leach Report" radio show. She covers the team for the Lexington Herald-Leader.
"And they have a chip on their shoulder about not winning the SEC championship. They have a swagger and a quiet confidence about them, and they really want to win an SEC Tournament championship," she added, "because that's something (the seniors) haven't been able to do."
A'dia Mathies is already one of the best ever in this program's history, but leading UK to its first Final Four would put her on even higher pedestal.
"I've covered her since she was in seventh grade and she still plays the same way, she has the same demeanor. It's been amazing to watch her grow into this star player," Smith observed. "I still feel like I know nothing about (her). She's quick-witted and she's interesting but she's extremely quiet. Her nickname is 'The Silent Assassin,' and that's what she is."
Cats need Harrow, Goodwin
When one looks back at the box score from Kentucky's loss at Florida last month, the guard numbers jump out. Ryan Harrow was scoreless in 19 minutes and he and Archie Goodwin combined for eight points and six of UK's 17 turnovers.
In Florida, Kentucky will face arguably the league's best defensive team. When it comes to forcing turnovers, the Gators make the opponent give up the ball on 22.9 percent of its possessions, which is second highest in the SEC. And Florida is a runaway leader in defensive efficiency, allowing only 0.845 points per possession (which also ranks second nationally).
One matchup that the Gators would seem to have difficulty with would be Alex Poythress - provided the freshman plays like he did against Missouri. At Florida, Kentucky tried going to Poythress, but he missed eight of his nine field goal attempts.
In the win over Missouri, Coach Cal credited the crowd with having a big impact on the outcome and Big Blue Nation will need to "bring it" tomorrow, too. Kentucky has lost only three times in its final home game of the season since 1964. One of those losses came at the hands of Florida in 2006.
Lunardi offers tweaks to NCAA selection process
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi is a numbers guy, constantly analyzing the data this time of year to project what the NCAA Selection Committee will do. Perhaps not surprisingly, Lunardi would like to see the committee take more numbers into consideration, and not put quite as much weight on a team's RPI.
"I would include more of them than the RPI. I think they all measure different things and the things measured are things of value if taken correctly," Lunardi in a recent appearance on "The Leach Report" radio show. "There are outliers. Sometimes logic plays into it. It's the same thing for the other side, with the more performance-based metrics (like kenpom.com). You have to spot the outliers."
If Lunardi had Coach Cal's proverbial "magic wand" to shape the selection and seeding process any way he wanted, Lunardi would put great emphasis on how a team does in its league.
"I would pass this rule without discussion: You would have to be tournament-eligible by being at least .500 in your league, as a way of making the conference season a little more important," he adding that league tournament performance would also be included.
"If you are 7-9 in your league and you count conference tournament games and you make the conference final and lose and you're 9-9 or 10-10, you are back to being tournament eligible. It would add a tremendous amount to those Thursday and Friday games between the teams that finished down on the standings and I think history shows it would open up one or two spots a year in the at-large pool for the Drexels, who win 29 games and get excluded," Lunardi continued. "History shows that time after time teams that have won a lot from high quality non-BCS leagues almost always perform better in the tournament than what I would call the middling majors from the bigger leagues. Winning 27 or 28 games in those leagues is pretty good and we forget that winning begets winning."
After Thursday's loss to Georgia, Kentucky no longer controls its own fate in the race for the No. 2 seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. However, the Wildcats put themselves in good position for the second seed with a win vs. Florida on Saturday.
In fact, there are only two ways in which UK would not be the No. 2 seed if the Cats win Saturday of the eight possible outcomes. The two seed, however, is out of the question with a loss to Florida. Here are all the scenarios heading into the final weekend of the regular season.
1. UK defeats Florida.
Missouri beats Tennessee, Ole Miss beats LSU and Alabama defeats
Georgia, UK wins the four-way tiebreaker and receives the No. 2 seed
based on its 2-1 record against Missouri, Ole Miss and Alabama. Missouri
and Ole Miss are both 2-2 against tied teams in that case, Alabama 1-2.
If Missouri and Ole Miss win, UK wins the three-way tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed with a 2-0 record against tied teams.
only Missouri and Alabama win, all three teams would have identical 1-1
records against tied teams. Missouri and Kentucky would both have 1-1
records against No. 1 seed Florida, while Alabama is 0-1. Missouri would
then win the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed with a 1-0 record against
No. 4 seed Alabama. UK would be the No. 3 seed.
If only Ole Miss
and Alabama win, all three teams would have identical 1-1 records
against tied teams. UK would be the only team of the three with a win
over Florida, so UK would win the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed.
If only Missouri wins, UK wins the two-way tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed with a 1-0 head-to-head record against Missouri.
If only Ole Miss wins, UK wins the two-way tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed with a 1-0 head-to-head record against Ole Miss.
only Alabama wins, Alabama wins the two-way tiebreaker for the No. 2
seed with a 1-0 head-to-head record against UK. UK would receive the No.
If Missouri, Ole Miss and Alabama all lose, UK finishes second outright and receives the No. 2 seed.
2. UK loses to Florida.
Florida wins SEC title.
If Missouri beats Tennessee, Ole Miss beats LSU and Alabama defeats Georgia, UK receives the No. 5 seed.
only Missouri and Ole Miss win, Alabama wins the two-team tiebreaker
for the No. 4 seed based on a 1-0 record against UK. UK would receive
the No. 5 seed.
If only Missouri and Alabama win, UK wins the two-team tiebreaker for the No. 4 seed based on a 1-0 record against Ole Miss.
only Ole Miss and Alabama win, a three-team tiebreaker between UK, Tennessee and Missouri
would be decided based on combined records against tied teams. UK and
Tennessee would both be 2-1 and Missouri 0-2, so it would return to a
head-to-head tiebreaker between UK and Tennessee. The two teams split
the season series, so Tennessee would receive the No. 4 seed based on a
1-1 record against Florida. UK would be the No. 5 seed.
only Missouri wins, UK, Ole Miss and Alabama would be tied at No. 3.
Each team in the tiebreaker has a 1-1 record against other teams in the
tiebreaker and all three teams are winless against Florida, so seeding
would be determined based on records against No. 2 seed Missouri. UK
would win the tiebreaker for the No. 3 seed based on its 1-0 record
against the Tigers.
If only Ole Miss wins, Tennessee wins the four-team tiebreaker for the No. 3 seed based
on a 3-2 record against UK, Missouri and Alabama. Alabama and UK would
both be 2-2 against tied teams and Alabama would then win a head-to-head
tiebreaker with UK for the No. 4 seed. UK would receive the No. 5 seed.
only Alabama wins, UK, Tennessee, Missouri
and Ole Miss would be tied for the No. 3 seed. UK would win the
tiebreaker based on a 3-1 record against tied teams.
If Missouri, Ole Miss and
Alabama all lose, there would be a five-way
tie for the No. 2 seed. Ole Miss would win the tiebreaker with a 4-2
record against tied teams. UK would receive the No. 3 seed based on a
3-2 record against tied teams.