Ulis, Cats Battle to Bitter End, but Fall to Indiana
DES MOINES, Iowa – Kentucky’s season rested on a razor’s edge more than once.
The Wildcats would either have to respond or let go of the rope. As anyone who has watched UK over the last month would have guessed they’d do, the Cats chose the former.
On this day, it just wasn’t enough.
“These kids aren't machines,” John Calipari said. “They're not computers. Stuff happens and you try to figure it out. We got it to a three-point game with a couple chances to win the game. What I don't want to do is take away from what Indiana did. Indiana -- they played every kid on that court, gave everything they had they deserved to win this game.”
UK could never quite find a rhythm on Saturday, with turnovers – 16 total and six on offensive fouls – and missed shots felling the Cats at the most inopportune times. Fourth-seeded Kentucky (27-9) fell in the second round to No. 5 seed Indiana (27-7), 73-67.
“We didn't play our best, but maybe it's because of them that we didn't play our best,” Calipari said.
The defeat, which ended a season that saw UK win a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season title as well as the SEC Tournament, came in spite of a characteristically heroic effort from Tyler Ulis. To the bitter end – when he fouled out in the final seconds – Ulis put it all on the line, making incredible shots and even taking a bruising charge from 6-foot-10, 245-pound Thomas Bryant.
“Yeah, and that’s what he does,” Isaiah Briscoe said. “He just tries to lead us to victory.”
Ulis scored 27 points, a total surpassed during his two-year career only by the 30 points he scored in the SEC Tournament championship game. He had the ball in his hands for most of the game, regularly finding space off ball screens and attacking with the dribble.
“I felt like the way they were playing ball screens I could get around them and try to force my way in there,” Ulis said. “I got to the basket a lot.”
Jamal Murray was the only other Wildcat to join Ulis in double figures, scoring 16 points but making only 7-of-18 shots and 1-of-9 3-pointers.
Murray and Ulis combined to attempt 38 of UK’s 57 field goals, and by necessity. Kentucky’s supporting cast struggled to make the impact it needed to in order for the Cats to extend their streak of five Sweet 16 appearances in six seasons under Calipari.
“I didn't think it would be shooting, but we knew if a couple of players didn't give us great efforts we would struggle to win,” Calipari said. “I knew that before the game. If they struggled, we're not going to -- each level you go in this thing you're going to have a team full of the guys performing.”
That left UK scrambling to stay in the game and seemingly out of it with 1:16 remaining. At that point, Indiana led 66-57, but Ulis spearheaded a furious rally. He scored eight points for the Cats in succession, his three free throws cutting the deficit to three. Alex Poythress would later make two of his own for the final points of his memorable four-year career to bring UK to within two points with 11 seconds to go.
But Indiana’s Bryant then buried two clutch free throws and Murray missed a 3 to remove all doubt and leave Kentucky coming to grips with the reality that its season had ended. For Murray, that was difficult to do. The Freshman All-American was emotional as he fielded questions at his locker postgame.
"I'm going to miss playing basketball with these guys,” Murray said. “It's done. Our season's done."
Calipari has been through a great deal more season-ending losses than Murray, so he was naturally more easily able to see the big picture.
“What I told 'em after the game is, don't let this game get in the way of what you guys accomplished this year because it was incredible,” Calipari said. “From where we were early in the year as an offensive team we ended up being the most efficient team in college basketball. We did not show it today, but that's who we became. We became a team that physically didn't have it, yet still became a pretty good defensive team.”
That doesn’t mean it’s not painful for him, particularly when he thinks about a group that gave him everything it had.
“I am sick for my team, though,” Calipari said. “I'm sick for some individual players who didn't perform well. I'm sick for Tyler and Jamal who had great years and, you know, Isaiah, and, you know, I feel so bad because, you know, you want -- I'll sit back. Could I have done something different? Is there something else I could have done to help them get over the hump? Is there some other way?
“But, you know, I'm -- the big picture of this is we're all right.”