Let me start off by saying I never wear UK gear on game days except for a really beat up, frayed and sweat-soaked white baseball cap with the UK logo. What was once white is now a rather gross tan color. I walk the dog in the morning and afternoon, always wearing this hat.. It is my only superstition. It comes from watching the Cats lose too many big games over the many, many years when I did wear the colors. No UK t-shirts or UK underwear or me. I don't wear blue anything on game days. The last time I wore blue on a game day was the Elite Eight game against West Virginia back in 2010.
Saturday, however, I got up early and put on a blue (gasp!) UK t-shirt in the dark. I immediately took it off when I went to the kitchen to make my first cup of coffee. I thought, "Okay, no harm no foul." So, I changed shirts finished off my first cup and second before walking the dog. Our walks are off leash (he’s on an electric collar which I hardly ever use anymore. He knows our routine.) We always go to the park in our subdivision where there are plenty of huge oak trees and lots of squirrels for him to chase. He gets 10 minutes of running from tree to tree looking for those "Wiley Wascals" who seem to take great joy in teasing him as they simply go around to the other side of the tree and squawk at him. At some point during the process, he does his morning constitutional and he sits and waits while I use my Publix plastic bag to clean up the mess and place it in the trash can. Then, he’s allowed to resume his squirrel hunting and chasing. We went home and there were no thoughts in my mind about breaking with my superstitious tradition.
Saturday was my step-daughter’s birthday and my wife volunteered to sit with the grand-sons (2 and 8) overnight so her daughter and husband could go get wasted and spend the night in a hotel. You know, the "Get a room" routine that young parents look forward to (I know, bad grammar). Anyhoo, I’d been craving some fried catfish and this gave me my opportunity to ruin my already bad health as my wife reminded me. I’ll be 70 in September and therefore think I’ve lived this long and that gives me the right to eat what I damned well please. So off I went: to the Catfish Place (highly recommended) in St. Cloud. I decided to wear one of my nicer UK hats just to see if there was some hate to relish.
I had to wait around a half hour before I was seated and struck up a conversation with a guy who was wearing a Kansas shirt. After complimenting Kansas as one of the great programs, we had a discussion about how college football and basketball are so much more entertaining than their professional counterparts because both require more difficult coaching.
When my name was called to be seated, it turned out my waitress is a huge Kentucky basketball fan. Her parents are from Kentucky. She is therefore a UK fan and certifiable member of the BBN. She does, however, cheer, for the Florida Gators football team. That is a common thing down here. Parents are from somewhere else and their kids are fans of another school in one sport while being a Gator fan in another sport.
As I was eating my delicious deep fried catfish, hash browns and salad, I noticed a guy and his dad talking about the Arizona – Wisconsin game. He was wearing a Texas Longhorn baseball cap. I asked him how the Texas fans were taking to Charlie Strong, It seems Texas fans are willing to give him a chance and are taking a wait and see approach.
Then, he told me he was a member of the BBN when it comes to basketball. His dad is originally from Owensboro and is a big UK fan. The old guy told me he saw a guy with an Indiana shirt and asked how he liked the Hoosiers sitting at home? He laughed when describing the nasty look he received. This guy is in his nineties and comes to Kissimmee (pronounced Kiss-sim-me, not Kiss-a-me) every year for the Astros’ spring training camp. He said he was worried about Notre Dame, but I confidently predicted a 20 point win and told him not to worry. Don’t ever listen to my predictions. So, I paid my check and left a $5 tip for my waitress because you don’t find a lot of UK fans in Florida who are native Floridians.
After getting home, I turned on the TV and watched end of the Wisconsin win and then had to listen to those anti –UK jerks at CBS with only Sir "Barles Charkley" defending us. It got worse as Len Elmore and Chris Webber gave their Irish slanted opinions as the game’s color commentators.
After Notre Dame took their first lead, you would’ve thought the game was over. When Kentucky came back and Notre Dame took the lead again, both gave the impression that the game was over…again…and again. That stuff was hard for me to listen to because it happened over and over throughout the first half. My impression of the first half was that our boys were not taking this game very seriously. We were awful on both ends. I’ve never understood how the tall guys can miss shots from one foot away? Often, they seem to want to take a Whitaker Bank shot instead of just throwing it down. Where’s Anthony Davis or Boogie Cousins when you need them?
What was truly amazing was after such a poor half, our Cats somehow managed to go into the locker room with the score tied after shooting only 37% while allowing the Irish to shoot 46.4%. If you’ll recall either Chris Webber or Len Elmore was boasting about how Notre Dame was shooting 54% at one point during the half. Any Cat fan worth his salt would be thinking, "Big Whoop!"
I felt from the beginning that our guys were playing to the perceived level of competition and Notre Dame surprised them with their physicality and offensive efficiency. It took most of the half for our guys to realize they were playing a good team who was a much better defensive team than expected. Even with that, we couldn't defend the pick and roll. Cal was obviously frustrated. That being said, I was confident that the Cats would turn it on in the 2nd half. However, I felt Notre Dame was most likely playing their best game of the year.
While I never thought we would lose for most of the 2nd half, I began to think that Kentucky was finally going to beat themselves somewhere around the 5:00 mark. For the first time this season, I was doubting the Cats and their ability to pull this one out. I went through the two overtime games against Texas A&M and one OT with Ole Miss never doubting we would eventually win. The same goes for the LSU game during the regular season. This time, however, it just felt different because of the turnovers, the lack of offensive rebounding and the missed free throws. While Notre Dame was playing great, Kentucky seemed discombobulated and out of sorts.
After reading about the game, I didn’t realize that Kentucky didn’t miss a shot after the 12:10 mark (my source here is the official play by play record at UK’s website). ESPN claimed last night it was the 12:16 mark. At the time the score was 48-44 Irish when Aaron missed a jumper with 12:10 to go and Willie missed a tip-in at 12:05. Kentucky didn’t score until Willie had a dunk off an Andrew Harrison assist with 10:24 left. Score: Notre Dame 48, Kentucky 46.
With 10:06, Vasturia made two free throws after Dakari Johnson fouled him which took the score to 50-46. Lyles made a layup at 9:46 and Andrew made a free throw at 8:43 which brought the score to 50-49. Jackson hit a layup at 8:23 which was followed by another basket in the paint by KAT with 8:08 left. Vasturia made a layup with 7:39 left and KAT hit a short jumper with 7:21 remaining. Score: Irish 54 Kentucky 53.
At 5:21, I began to doubt with the score 61-56. While the Irish had not been able to stop Towns, we couldn’t stop anyone, especially Zach Auguste and Jerian Grant. Hope was renewed when Aaron hit his 3 with 3:15 left to give us the lead at 64-63. Then Grant hit his three to make it 66-64. Doubt raised its ugly head again. With 1:12 to go, KAT tied it with another basket in the paint. Then Andrew did his thing and drew a foul and made the free throws.
Once Grant made that three with 2:35 remaining, Kentucky shut Notre Dame down. Grant missed a jumper at 1:25 remaining, WCS blocked a Grant three pointer with 36 seconds left, and Notre Dame got the rebound with 1 second on the shot clock. They couldn’t get off a shot so it was Kentucky’s ball with 33 seconds left and then Grant missed the three at the buzzer after Andrew’s free throws.
After shooting 37% in the first half, Kentucky shot an amazing 75% in the second half and 53.2% for the game compared to Notre Dame’s 46.4% for both halves. So how did we not walk away with a relative easy victory? Turnovers, assists and offensive rebounds were the culprits. Kentucky had 11 turnovers compared to Notre Dame’s 7. Notre Dame had 16 assists while Kentucky only had 8 and Notre Dame had 13 offensive rebounds compared to Kentucky’s 10. For Kentucky, it was shooting percentage and blocked shots (9) that kept them in the game. A deep bench also helped.
One for the ages? This USA Today writer thinks so. He lists three games as NCAA Tournament classics Duke – UK in 1992, Illinois-Arizona in 2005, and this game as the pinnacle games of regional finals. I have to say that I felt Kentucky didn’t play well until they needed to at the end. They did, however, manage to shut down Connaughton. He was 3-10 for field goals and only 1-4 from three point land and only scored eight points. He had three assists and two turnovers.
One thing that was proven Saturday is that to beat Kentucky, you’re going to have to play your best for a full forty minutes while Kentucky is not going to play all that great. I think Dan Wetzel gets it.
…..what felt for 39:54 like one of the wildest rides March has ever seen, what could have been one of the most historic upsets of all time, instead just ended, just ended like that. - Survivor's recourse: UK shows what happens when it gets pushed to the brink
Mike DeCourcey had a different take in his analysis - Kentucky's last step to the Final Four led by Cauley-Stein, shared by many Wildcats
It’s like meeting the woman of your dreams in college. Perhaps not the ideal timing, but you either seize the opportunity for a lifetime of happiness or regret forever the one that got away. Nope. Sorry. It was there…..
And this –
This moment belonged to every one of the Wildcats who played in Saturday night’s Midwest Region final against Notre Dame, a 68-66 triumph for UK and an agonizing work of athletic art that left those who viewed it as drained as if they’d just sat through a double-feature of "The Deer Hunter" and "Saving Private Ryan."
After this Greg Doyel piece in the Indianapolis Star (not THE Annapolis Star, Charles), you get the idea about the attitude required to play Kentucky and compete with a chance to win. Will Wisconsin have the right attitude? Or, will they have Aaron Harrison’s shot last year nagging the back of their minds?
If Kentucky plays at their highest level like they did against West Virginia, Kansas and UCLA that may not even be enough. Kentucky may be unbeaten, but they are mortal and can be beaten. The Dominican Republic team managed to do it back on August 17th with a 63-62 victory. Can Wisconsin, who played very well against Arizona, do it? We’ll find out on Saturday. Two more games to win before true historical greatness. Two games in a final four consisting of Kentucky, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Duke, all with proven coaches, where Kentucky is going to have to play better than Saturday. Like I said, Saturday wasn’t a normal day for me or the Cats.