By Ashley Scoby
Kentucky basketball’s pursuit of perfection would have made for great cinema all along. But the ending is only reminiscent of a Shakespearean tragedy.
After a 38-0 start – the best in men’s Division I men’s college basketball – the show that captivated the sport this year came to a crashing, sickening halt of a conclusion, with a 71-64 loss to Wisconsin in the national semifinals.
“It’s like a movie – like when the main character dies, and you’re like, ‘What?! Why does the main character die?’” said Willie Cauley-Stein, who admitted the loss was “probably” his last game at Kentucky. “No cliff-hangers, no nothing, just boom, you’re done. That’s the way it feels. That’s the way it ended.”
In the midst of a game where the Wildcats played from behind for the majority of time, Kentucky took a 60-56 lead with 6:36 remaining.
“Winning time,” the Kentucky players have called this for the entire year – that moment when they simply decide it’s time to pull away. An 8-0 run seemed to be the beginning of the sledgehammer doing what sledgehammer basketball teams do.
But once the Wildcats grabbed that slim margin, it appeared as if they started milking the clock, biding their time and their four-point lead until the final buzzer sounded. Instead, the shot clock buzzer screamed, three times in a row, reminding Kentucky it was time to wake up from a dream season.
On a night where the country’s top defensive team was pitted against the nation’s top offensive team, it was the offensive squad in red that made the world-class defensive plays, forcing three straight shot clock violations of the No. 1 team.
“They did a good job of keeping us at their pace,” said Tyler Ulis. “It’s one of the reasons we ended up losing.”
“All of a sudden I look up, we’re up four,” said UK head coach John Calipari. “I’m like, ‘We’re going to win this thing.’ Then, you know, a play here, a play there, all of a sudden we don’t post it. They crowd us, we don’t post it again, we take a late shot. We’re not a team that takes shot clock violations. We got three.”
But it was exactly the kind of critical error you would expect from a team that spent nearly the entire game either clawing from behind or locked in a tie.
Wisconsin had built a nine-point lead in the first half – which corresponded with Kentucky’s largest deficit of the tournament (two points away from Kentucky’s biggest deficit of the season). Tied up at 11-11 with 13:33 until the half, Wisconsin ran off a 12-3 run over the next 4:17, taking a 23-14 lead. Kentucky never got its head high enough out of the water to take a real breath.
Early on, Kentucky figured out quickly that driving into the paint against Wisconsin was going to be the Badgers’ kryptonite. Andrew Harrison narrowed his eyes and went straight at the guys in red, going 5-of-6 from the field for 11 points in the first half, mostly off driving straight to the rim.
Harrison was responsible, through assists or his own shots, for eight of UK’s next 13 points, and Kentucky pulled to within three (30-27 with 4:11 remaining in the first half). He was also responsible for the Wildcats taking their first lead since early in the first half, after he came up with a loose ball and threw a dart of an outlet pass to Trey Lyles for a powerful dunk and a 36-34 lead with 31 seconds on the clock. But the teams ended the half in a tie, 36-36, after Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig nailed a jumper right before the buzzer sounded.
The Badgers went right back to work early in the second half, building another eight-point lead with 14:43 to play.
“We were down eight. The game probably should have been over,” Calipari said. “These kids just fought.”
After Wisconsin defended the way Kentucky had been defending all season, the Badgers got back to what they had been doing all season themselves: scoring as efficiently as possible. They ended the game on a 15-4 run after Kentucky took its 60-56 lead. Sam Dekker cut it to two with a jumper, then cut Kentucky’s heart and its season with a three-pointer that made it 63-60, Wisconsin.
Aaron Harrison’s three-point play with 56 seconds on the clock got Kentucky to within one, but the Wildcats never got closer to saving its perfect season.
Kentucky’s players – although part of a still-historical season – knew that the ‘1’ on the end of their record glared far brighter than the 38 on the other side.
“38-0 is incredible, but we wanted the championship,” said Devin Booker.
“It takes away a lot,” said Trey Lyles. “Our final goal, we weren’t able to achieve it.”
“We’re gonna get talked about forever – being so close to a championship, being undefeated, to come up short in the semifinal game,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s the stuff we’re gonna have to live with.”
Ashley Scoby is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky and a KyForward sports writer. She has reported on the Wildcats for wildcathoops.com, vaughtsviews.com andkysportsreport.com as well as for newspapers in Danville and Glasgow. She will begin a summer internship with Sports Illustrated magazine in New York in June.
Courtesy of KyForward