Dream season ends too soon with loss to Wisconsin
INDIANAPOLIS -- It seemed a familiar script for Kentucky.
The Wildcats, once trailing by nine points in the first half and eight early in the second, were poised to close out another opponent in the final minutes, this time in the Final Four.
With an 8-0 run and their defense holding Wisconsin scoreless for more than six minutes, the Cats grabbed a 60-56 lead with less than five minutes remaining. They could taste a trip to the national championship game, right up until the Badgers snatched it away.
"Didn't win," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. "Didn't make plays, and they did. If you don't make plays in the last five minutes, you'll lose."
And for the first time in 39 games, the Cats found out what losing felt like. Their bid for a perfect season and - more importantly - a national title came to an end with a 71-64 loss, while Wisconsin (36-3) will take on Duke on Monday for the trophy UK had so intently focused on for so long.
"Could not be more proud of this group of young people," John Calipari said. "What they did all year, just took us all on a ride, our staff, our school, our state. Took us on a ride. We all wanted to win those last two. These kids wanted to win it in the worst way. But you have to give Wisconsin credit."
The Badgers earned the credit, reeling off an 8-0 run of their own that Sam Dekker started. Next, Nigel Hayes tied the game with a put-back that narrowly beat the shot clock. It was the last of Wisconsin's 12 offensive rebounds and 13 second-chance points. For the game, the Badgers outrebounded Kentucky, 34-22, tying the Cats' largest rebounding deficit of the season.
"They played a great game," Devin Booker said. "They played a full game. The whole game they just never gave up."
Neither did UK, but the Cats simply couldn't execute well enough on offense to close it out.
After Karl-Anthony Towns scored in the post with 6:36 to go, UK had five consecutive empty possessions. The stretch included shot-clock violations on back-to-back possessions as UK appeared to look to milk the clock. On the contrary, Coach Cal says the credit goes to Wisconsin.
"We didn't slow it down," Calipari said. "We were trying to post the ball, run the pick'n rolls, the stuff we were running. They crowded a little bit, the guys got a little bit tentative. We were trying to still play. The thing that was tough is we are a finishing team, that's what we've been, and we didn't. They did and we didn't. That's why they're still playing and we're not."
Andrew Harrison, who scored 11 of his 13 points before halftime to keep the Cats in the game, tried to shoulder the blame by himself.
"That's all on me," Andrew Harrison said. "Being the point guard gotta be aware, more aware of what time it is on the clock and stuff like that."
In spite of the miscues, UK wasn't done just yet. Aaron Harrison, filling his familiar role as a crunch-time killer, drove and scored through contact. He hit the ensuing free throw to cut Wisconsin's lead to 64-63.
On the other end, national player of the year Frank Kaminsky - who had 20 points and 11 rebounds - drew a foul and made two free throws, putting UK down three with 24 seconds to go. Towns would then draw a foul of his own and make one of two free throws for the last of his 16 points, forcing UK to foul intentionally. Wisconsin would make five of six free throws to close out the upset and send the Cats to their locker room with tears in their eyes.
"It was very emotional," Ulis said. "Nobody said much. We understood we had a great season, but basically everybody understands we did it for nothing."
The way Ulis feels is surely similar to the way outsiders will remember this Kentucky team, that the Cats went on an incredible, but ultimately meaningless run. Coach Cal knows that's simply not true.
"Can't take away," Calipari said. "I know everybody is going to say, This season... This season is historic. I just can't believe anybody is going to do what these kids just did to get to this point unblemished with the schedule they played, then how they did it."
Towns was as torn up about the loss as Ulis was, but able to reflect on all this team has accomplished in spite of the sting.
"I think we should be remembered as great basketball players (and) great human beings," Towns said. "A team that shows that success is more important than individual success. Accolades don't count as much as the team success. That we all gave up a part of ourselves for each other to make a perfect mold in our minds."
That perfect mold is what makes the end of this season so devastating. For all the talk of 40-0 and a ninth national championship for UK, these Cats are more focused on the fact that they won't be together as a team again.
"The journey that we made with these guys right here--I know everybody says that they love their teammates but we really are like brothers," Andrew Harrison said. "We really do sit around, joke, laugh all day long, so I mean it sucks."
"We had a lot of fun this season," Aaron Harrison said. "One of the best times of my life. I wouldn't trade it for anything. We didn't finish like we were supposed to."