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Kentucky Basketball Got Benched at Tennessee

When a few starters left, with a 21-point lead, something happened. It wasn’t good.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Everybody's going to have a theory about what went wrong at Tennessee, so here are some of mine.

The Cats and the ball were flying around the court in the first 16 minutes of the first half. Everyone was dipping his beak in the offensive production and the defense was responding, too.

And then came the mystifying substitutions.

A lot of the post-game reaction was that [a] Briscoe and Poythress had gotten into that dreaded "two fouls in the first half" situation from which no mortal ever escapes; and [b] "I mean, you gotta rest ‘em some time!"

But suddenly there were Dominique Hawkins and Charles Matthews on the floor, Skal Labissiere and Marcus Lee. And the ball stopped flying and started flailing.

We got exactly one field goal in the final 5:48 of the half, a Tyler Ulis layup.

What seemed to happen was that our offense became a two-man game, Ulis and Jamal Murray trying to shoot Kentucky out of its slump.

Willis stood around in the corner, waiting for the ball, and missed whatever opportunities he got. Skal and Lee just kind of futzed and fumbled every time they had the ball down low, so there was no working off their picks and passes. Briscoe did what he does, both brilliantly and maddeningly.

It all went from effortless to forced on offense. And on defense, as Tennessee cut the lead from 21 to six, 13 of its 23 points in those last five minutes and 48 seconds were on free throws. They didn't miss a-one! While in that same time, Kentucky had only four points from the line, two by Ulis and two by Murray.

But the problem was, when the other team goes to the line 13 times, your team is piling up fouls. And the other team gets into the bonus and, if they convert their free throws successfully, free throws become almost as lethal as three-point shots.

And Tennessee was converting its free throws.

And also, by the way, Tennessee began to enter the out-of-their-minds realm of three-point shooting. And then it's over.

However, back to that point in the first half when those substitutes began pouring off the UK bench, here's what I think happened.

Ulis has gone from a phenomenal point guard who, "Wow! can sting you with his offense if you forget about him," to becoming one of two primary scorers on this team. He and Murray begin trying to take the offense on themselves.

Murray shot 20 times - 12 from long-range. He was four of eight inside the arc, but just three of 12 from outside. Ulis shot 10 times. And he, who has always been so good with his scoring in and around the lane, was one of six frominside.

And Kentucky got nothing from its bench. Four guys shot five times, scored four points. At least Lee and Skal got some rebounds when they weren't fouling.

Each got a basket. Lee's was one of his patented put-backs, Skal's one of his patented outside soft jump shots. But a team can't feast on two made baskets and four points in 31 minutes from its bench.

So the shooting was lousy, the three-point shooting was lousy, the rebounding was lousy (giving up 14 offensive rebounds to a shorter team) and the ball-handling was lousy - 11 turnovers.

The only statistical bright spot for the Cats, 78 percent from the free throw line, was worse than Tennessee's 88 percent. And Tennessee went to the line 34 times. That right there is a difficult differential to overcome.

So what am I saying? That Kentucky's paper-thin depth hurt, getting nothing from its bench after its starters had established the 21-point lead. And then it got very little from its starters when it was trying to regain its momentum.

Basketball games seem to acquire a certain rhythm, when you can just feel one team begin to soar while the other team stumbles. Maybe it has to do with emotion and confidence, especially on the college level. Maybe it has to do with the particular combinations of players on the court. Sometimes, it's the way the refs call the game. Sometimes it's the way the home crowd suddenly gets into it.

I've been watching this game for umpty-ump years and I've never entirely figured it out.

But whatever it was on Tuesday night, it struck Kentucky in a big way.

And when you don't have a Karl-Anthony Towns or Julius Randle or DeMarcus Cousins to go to inside when the game is getting close and tense; when you have to depend on athleticism and intelligence and outside shooting; when you need to either make the layup or draw the foul and the refs are looking the other way - it becomes difficult to regain and maintain that rhythm.

One of these weeks, I'd like to do a comparison chart on where the 2011 and 2014 teams were at a similar point in the schedule. I'll bet we'll see that we were tearing our hair out and giving up at right around now, early February.

Not that another trip to the Final Four is necessarily in the offing, just because it happened before. Much as we'd like to think so, teams do not do something just because their predecessors did. But the one constant here is the coach, and John Calipari has been genius, as the season winds down, in figuring out his teams' strengths.

So it's still too early to give up, just because of one 21-point lead that was blown, until the last scoreboard of the last game of the tournament says: "Give up, it's over. See you next year. I hear you have some phenomenal freshmen coming in."