Coming into this season, one of the dates everyone who watches college hoops had circled was Kentucky at Texas A&M.
Though both the Wildcats and Aggies have fallen down the rankings as the season has worn on — highlighted by A&M losing four of five coming into this one — this was a game most expected to be a barnburner between two immensely talented teams.
That was the case as the Cats and Aggies both got off to fast starts and traded blows for the entire first half before UK went into the break leading 36-35. It was a great first half by both clubs that saw each side hit its fair share of tough shots, despite good defense being played both ways.
But the Aggies would slowly take control of the second half, building a lead as big as eight. The Cats would claw back into it as the game came down to the final seconds. A lob-dunk from Tyler Ulis to Marcus Lee tied the game at 68-all with 42 seconds remaining, that came after Ulis made an amazing block just to give UK a chance to tie the game.
After UK got a defensive stop, the Aggies fouled Lee and sent him to the line for a one-and-one with 31 seconds left, which he missed to give A&M the final possession.
But UK would get another stop in the final seconds and Ulis' full-court heave fell short as the game went into overtime, just as it did last season.
In the extra session, both teams would continue to trade blows until it appeared UK got a stop up one with 10 seconds left. Isaac Humphries pulled down the rebound, was fouled and slammed the ball down in celebration, but was called for a technical foul.
Isaac Humphries is T'd up, fouling out in the process. 9.4 seconds left, Kentucky leads 76-75. https://t.co/0cYVVaK7O7— Andy Wittry (@AndyWittry) February 21, 2016
That...I just can't even...
Emotions are unacceptable in sports— Nick Roush (@RoushKSR) February 21, 2016
The Aggies would hit both technical free throws to take a 77-76 lead. The foul was also Hump's fifth and led to an odd rule being enforced that would see Skal Labissiere forced to shoot the two free throws. He hit the first and missed the next to leave A&M with the ball and the game tied at 77-all with nine seconds left.
After Danuel House drove to the rim and missed a short jumper, Tyler Davis caught the rebound and laid it in as time expired to give the Aggies the win.
It's a gut-wrenching way to lose, but UK showed a lot of heart and maturity to battle all the way back and nearly win the game on the road against a top-25 team.
Here's a look at our takeaways from the game.
The latest Cat to go down with an injury was already banged up coming into this game. Derek Willis overcame a variety of injuries to start in this one, but was ineffective outside of a three-pointer in the first half as he finished the game with just three points on 1-of-4 shooting.
But Willis' mere presence was helping keep UK's offense spread out and the Aggies respecting it, as the threat of his three-pointer allowed the Cats to have enough offensive success that they were in this game to the very end.
That is, until Willis' injury late in the second half with UK down just 59-57. UK was in the midst of a 6-0 run before he went out, and that injury badly limited UK's offense down the stretch as no one other than Jamal Murray or Tyler Ulis wanted the ball.
UK was able to get the game into overtime, but not having Willis hurt the offense and the Cats' ability to pull down some key rebound with other bigs out of the game. Hopefully, this injury isn't serious and Willis returns soon. He's been a huge part of this team and losing him would really hurt UK's chances at a deep tourney run.
Before this season began, and even in the early stages, you'd have thought Dominique Hawkins was closer to having the kind of breakout Derek Willis has enjoyed this year. While there's no question Willis is more talented, Hawkins has been a much better defender and occasional three-point shot that UK was in desperate need of this season,
But multiple injuries from the start of training camp through the season have prevented that from happening. That's not kept Hawk from getting meaningful playing time here and there when he's been healthy, and he ended up getting early minutes in this game, despite none of the guards being in foul trouble.
Hawkins made the most of it with a three-pointer to mark just the second time in the last six games he has scored. It doesn't seem like much, but it's that ability to make plays in limited minutes that will lead to Hawkins earning more playing time and possibly a bigger role.
Aggies Relied Heavily on Threes
You expect every team to give the Cats their best shot, but the Aggies were on another level in this one when it came to the three-ball. A&M's first five field goals were all three-pointers as they seemingly couldn't miss from deep.
And it's not like they were wide-open looks either. Most of them were well defended and close to NBA range, but the early barrage help keep the Aggies' spirits high and trailing by just one at halftime. Thankfully, the Aggies cooled down and finished the half 6-of-15 from deep as UK took a lead into halftime.
The second half would see a similar theme as A&M hit three of their first five threes and did just enough to force this game to come down to the wire. They're not a very good three-point team, as evidenced by making 4-of-19 in Tuesday's win over Ole Miss.
But they would finish this game with enough help from the three-ball (and refs) to pull off the win.
Briscoe Hit a Three-Pointer ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Yeah, that seems like a 'so what' statement, but believe it or not, Isaiah Briscoe hit a three-pointer in this game for the first time since Dec. 12 vs Arizona State. He's been attempting about one three-ball per game, but hasn't hit one since the year 2015 while making just five all season, which speaks to just how much he's struggling to hit any kind of non-layup shot.
It also speaks to how much Briscoe does as a defender and rebounder that he continues to start and play 30+ minutes per game, despite having little offensive game to speak of. I really like Briscoe's potential to become a great player, and even one that can play in the NBA, but he's a ways away from that happening and needs at least one more year in college.
UK Still Moving Up Standings
The Cats did just enough this week, combined with other teams losing, that they're actually higher on the NCAA seed line right now than they were at this time last week.
Today alone, No. 10 Miami, No. 11 West Virginia and No. 13 Dayton all lost with the Flyers and Mountaineers losing twice this week. All three of those clubs have been seeded at or above UK's seeding in the recent bracketologies. That's after No. 4 North Carolina, No. 5 Maryland, No. 6 Iowa and No. 15 Iowa State lost earlier this week.
This was already a good week for the Cats before today's game even tipped off. That helps take a little bit of the sting of this loss away.