"That game was over, and then all of the sudden ... "
Kentucky head coach John Calipari after UK beat Kentucky in the SEC Tournament championship game
Don't allow the lede to fool, the Vanderbilt Commodores played an outstanding basketball game in winning the SEC Tournament for the first time in 61 years. The 'Dores did what they had to do to win, which is make shots, and defend the paint with vigor. Conversely, Kentucky lost a game it should have won. The 'Cats lost a game late. The 'Cats lost a game, again, on the big stage, after playing the final seven-minutes like a freshman dominated squad. Kentucky lost a game to one of the only three or four teams capable beating the 'Cats. Kentucky lost to Kentucky.
On display in the final seven-minutes of the Wildcats' loss were freshman mistakes (read: quick shots, bad shots, shots too far from the basket), mistakes we haven't seen out of this team all year, save the final 30 seconds of the Indiana game in December. And for Kentucky, under the bright lights of the SEC championship stage, to play so unintelligently, after playing the entire year like the cerebral basketball squad they are, is worrisome. Worrisome, because the SEC championship game was an unpleasant replay of the losses Kentucky has suffered in the last two NCAA Tournaments. Losses which stemmed from freshman-like play, manifesting itself in unfortunate decision-making, which in turn led to the team playing hurried, and with a low basketball IQ.
Unfortunately, the lapse in basketball judgment occurred at a time in the game when the 'Cats have been green-money all season long. Call it crunch time ... winning time ... fat lady singing time ... start up the bus time ... whichever metaphor one chooses, when it came time for UK to finish strong against the 'Dores -- as the 'Cats did against North Carolina, Vandy (twice), Alabama, and Mississippi State -- it finished meekly, as a whimper was all the Wildcats could muster as the whip was applied.
Nightmare near Bourbon Street
This is how the 'Cats attacked, up 59-55 with seven-minutes remaining, with possession after a steal by Terrence Jones:
- Missed trey by Anthony Davis -- Davis' 3-point shot, with UK up four, with seven remaining, became, not an Instant Classic, but rather an instant question mark. As in, WHY?
- UK 62, VU 57 with 4:49 left: Missed 3-pointer by Doron Lamb.
- UK 62, VU 57 with 4:18 left: Missed 18-footer by Marquis Teague -- One of the few mistakes made by Teague was this forced shot.
- UK 62, VU 59 with 3:39 left: Missed 3-pointer by Darius Miller.
- UK 62, VU 59 with 2:58 left: Missed jumper by Miller.
- UK 62, VU 60 with 2:29 left: Missed 14-foot jumper by Teague.
- UK 62, VU 62 with 1:42 left: Missed 3-pointer by Lamb.
- UK 62, VU 65 with 1:18 left: Missed jumper by Jones.
- UK 63, VU 67 with :31 left: Missed 3-pointer by Teague.
- UK 63, VU 69 with :24 left: Missed jumper by Miller.
- UK 63, VU 69 with :16 left: Missed 3-pointer by Lamb.
- UK 64, VU 71 with :09 left: Inconsequential missed 3-pointer by Miller.
Kentucky was outscored 16-5 over the final seven-minutes, missing all seven long-range bombs, and five two-point shots, with Davis and Jones taking zero shots inside the paint with the exception of put-backs.
Kentucky forced shots, took shots much too early in the shot clock, took shots without benefit of ball reversal or multiple passes. Kentucky simply crossed mid-court, looked inside for a nano-second or two, and bombed away. Perfectly executing what it was Vanderbilt wanted the 'Cats to do.
Kentucky's Teague, who had six assists and zero turnovers, said after the game, "We should have tried to get the ball inside. We settled for too many outside shots."
Coach Cal, ever one to take disappointment with ease, said,
"This team has responded, today (though), for the first time in the last four minutes of the game, we didn't make shots. I'll be honest with you, I was stunned and I mean they were wide-open shots, with no one near and we just missed. That happens. I'd rather it happen now than next weekend, or the following weekend, or the following weekend, do it now. We had our chances. I watched the tape coming back and marked it off, we were up four with whatever (remaining on the clock), and still up two with whatever, and had our chance, missed another wide-open one, and I was like, 'wow.' It was unusual for us, but that stuff happens. It was a physical game but they let it go, they let the pushing and shoving go. Hopefully you get into the tournament and all that stuff gets called, and we'll be fine."
Giving credence to Cal's befuddlement is this; for the game, UK took 28 shots from distance -- making six for 21.4%, its worst 3-point shooting percentage, when taking at least 20 treys, since the 'Cats' loss to West Virginia in the Elite Eight two years ago -- and with so many Wildcat sorties being launched from long-range, Kentucky recorded a pathetically low 30 points in the paint (UK averaged 38 coming into the game), with all 14 second half paint points coming in the first 12 minutes, the last a thunderous Miller dunk to give UK a 59-54 lead with 8:04 left. Perhaps putting an exclamation point on what it is UK needs to do to win; Miller's rim-rattling thunder was not only Kentucky's final paint points for the game, it was the 'Cats' final field goal.
Truth and Consequences
Kentucky committed 22 fouls to Vandy's 17, resulting in Kentucky being out-shot from the free throw line 32-19. All because UK employed a perimeter oriented offense, and not the inside-first attack the 'Cats have held tightly to all year (regardless of whether Kentucky was facing zone or man-to-man) -- In Kentucky's first 33 games, Wildcat opponents were whistled for 605 fouls, while UK was tagged for 473 fouls, which resulted in Kentucky taking 750 free throws compared to 477 shots from the stripe for UK's opposition (that's a tad over eight more free throws per game for the Wildcats).
Is a repeat of this year's SEC championship game meltdown in UK's future? Did yesterday's game foreshadow how the 'Cats will handle the immense pressure of an Elite Eight or Final Four game?
The only way to uncover the answers to those questions is to stay tuned. But my feeling is this team will respond. Respond like the champions I think they are. And I do think this team is filled with championship caliber individuals, who together, make a championship caliber team. Championship caliber because of their incredible skill level, camaraderie, and before Sunday, their total focus.
That requisite element, though, the focus all teams need to compete for championships, was lacking to a great degree in the Wildcats' loss on Sunday (as well Friday's first round win over LSU). Without it , without focus, this team is certainly the most impressive freshman collaboration since Michigan's Fab Five, but like the Wolverines, they will be title-less.
There are but precious few teams in the country who are capable of beating the 'Cats, but Kentucky is one of them. Sunday's loss proved that, and the sooner that fact takes hold in the hearts and minds of the Wildcats, the better, because lose-and-go-home is just around the corner.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!