Sometimes sports can be so cruel. Sunday was one of those times.
A last-second shot by Luke Maye ended the 2016-17 season for the Kentucky Wildcats, as they fell 75-73 to top-seeded North Carolina. The shot came just moments after Malik Monk’s contested three-pointer tied the game and sent the Big Blue Nation into euphoric celebration, as most were expecting that the Wildcats has forced overtime after trailing by seven with less than a minute to go.
Instead, the players and fans were left stunned, the stark realization that the season was over quickly sinking in as the Tar Heels players celebrated. After all the comebacks of the past two months, the big shots down the stretch, the way this team refused to lose no matter what obstacles they found placed in front of them, it was over in an instant. They simply ran into a better team, who hit a shot with virtually zero time left on the clock.
There were moments this season when fans got frustrated with this team, and with certain players on it. I won’t lie, I was one of them. It isn’t easy to see a team with so much talent struggle with what many considered to be a very weak conference—although, that perception might have been a bit off-target. However, after losing three of four in late January and early February, we got the “reboot” from John Calipari.
Whether he actually changed anything, only he and the players will ever know. Kentucky went on a run of sixteen straight wins, some of which were not very satisfying. The Wildcats struggled with LSU, and then a Missouri team they should have manhandled. They had to hang on to defeat Vanderbilt on Senior Night, and then were not impressive in the first two rounds of the SEC Tournament.
Then, something happened. Whether it was part of “the reboot”, or the fact that the players realized what they would need to do to make a deep run in March, or just some other factor that we won’t know, it was obvious to all who had watched this team all season long. They started giving their all on the defensive end. In the process, they began to gloss over their flaws, they began to shut down the nay-sayers, and they began to make us believe that they could bring home the ninth national championship banner in school history. They gave their all for the program, and the tears in their eyes after Sunday’s loss shows just how much it meant for them.
While they fell short of their goal, this year’s team gave us all a great ride down the stretch. The star freshmen showed why they were so highly touted, and why we will only get to enjoy them in the blue and white for one season. The seniors showed with every dive for a loose ball, every big shot to keep their team in the game, how much it meant to them to play for the program they’d cheered for their whole lives, and how badly they wanted to wear “Kentucky” across their chest for just one more game. You even had a player that nobody expected anything from, step up and play the biggest game of his life when his teammates needed it the most. In the process, they secured a place in our hearts and memories that will not soon fade.
No player took more heat this season than Isaiah Briscoe. Many wanted him benched after a five game stretch saw him shoot just thirty-eight percent from the floor, while committing twenty-two turnovers during that time. However, Briscoe became a tough defender down the stretch, and shot fifty-percent from the floor and from downtown in the tournament, committing just seven turnovers while contributing sixteen assists. He became a player that personified the way this team rebounded from the rough stretch, and changed the minds of many UK fans with his play.
De’Aaron Fox did everything but wear a cape at times during the tournament, as he nearly iced the win against Wichita State by himself, and then carried the team on his back against UCLA, embarrassing Lonzo Ball all night as he went for thirty-nine points, an NCAA tournament freshman record. His improvement on the defensive end was quite obvious over the last few weeks as well, which was a key reason Kentucky advanced past the Bruins
Rarely do you see a player who can be silent for thirty-eight minutes, and then take over in the final two the way Malik Monk did on Sunday. Yet, we all know what he can do when his team needed him the most. Forty-seven points the first time they played UNC. Thirty points in the second half of the regular-season game against Florida to help UK clinch the regular-season SEC crown. However, despite his offensive prowess, it was his defending and rebounding—or lack thereof—that fans were frustrated with. So, he started giving his all on both. After being called out by Cal for not having a single rebound in two games, he had multiple rebounds in twelve of his final thirteen games and helped lock down some terrific shooters. Had Kentucky won the game against the Tar Heels, his three pointer in the final seconds might have gone down in UK lore. Instead, it will simply be yet another testament to the spurt-ability of a truly gifted player.
It became quite frustrating for UK players and fans both to see Bam Adebayo fail to grab a simple rebound with two hands. When Coach Cal threatened to make the entire team run if Bam didn’t grab a rebound with two hands, that changed. Adebayo became a beast inside, averaging over ten boards per game in Kentucky’s final thirteen. He also averaged thirteen points per game during that stretch, and recorded at least one block in each of those games.
Then, there were the two seniors who gave everything they had to prolong this season. It wasn’t just the big shots. It wasn’t just the key defensive stops. It was the nonstop effort on nearly every play, the diving for loose balls, the leadership they provided on the floor at points when it seemed like games might be slipping away. It likely helped that the they were from the state of Kentucky, and knew just what it meant to wear that uniform. They never wanted to take it off.
After three and a half years of wondering why Derek Willis never realized the potential many believe he had coming into the program, he took a huge step forward and became one of the Wildcats’ most important players the second half of the season. Everyone knew he had the ability to shoot three-pointers, but his game went to a whole other level after he baptized a poor South Carolina Gamecock in January. He began to not only add a solid mid-range game, but his rebound and defense vastly improved. Not only did he become a solid partner to Adebayo on the glass, Willis came up with numerous key blocks in the latter stages of the season, recording eighteen rejections in the final nine games.
Dominique Hawkins had already etched a spot in the memory of Kentucky fans with his terrific performance last season against the University of Louisville. However, we saw an entirely different player over the final two months of this season. One could argue that no player was as vital to the success of this season as Hawkins. His defensive energy, and uncanny knack for hitting crucial baskets, kept Kentucky in quite a few games where they were either in danger of losing the lead, or kept them from falling so far behind that they wouldn’t be able to catch up. He scored in double-figures in three of UK’s final five games going back to the SEC Championship, and went 10-for-16 from beyond the arc during that run. He hounded teams on the defensive end, causing numerous turnovers, a few of which were key plays in big wins.
In the end, they simply ran into the likely national champion, who they went toe-to-toe with twice this season and were separated by a single, solitary point when you add up the scores. This group of young men have no reason to hang their heads. They carried themselves all season with dignity and class. There were no off-the-court incidents, no disciplinary problems, and no unsportsmanlike issues. They fought as hard as they could, until the final play, the final moments, the final painful shot. Nobody can question what playing for Kentucky meant for them, as we saw in the locker room after the game.
Genuine. Heartfelt. Real.— ESPN (@espn) March 27, 2017
The emotions of March.https://t.co/S59hXH8bxi
These young men cared immensely, and were just as crushed as the fans by how that game ended. As Fox said, some people thought the players didn’t care, especially after the Florida loss where Monk was seen laughing on the bench. Anybody who says that now, didn’t see what the rest of us saw over these past few weeks. They also loved each other. You could see it in how they celebrated each other’s successes, in the way that they lifted each other on the court, and in how they consoled each other like brothers in the locker room after the loss. They were fun to watch, fun to cheer for, and easy to love.
Sunday’s loss is the end of the road for most of the key members of this team. Now comes the part we are all too familiar with, where we will have to learn a whole new group of names and faces. Adebayo, Monk, and Fox will undoubtedly enter the draft, and all three are likely to be taken in the first round. Willis, Hawkins, and fellow senior Mychal Mulder will finish out the semester and move on with their lives, with Hawkins and Willis likely getting a spot in the D-League or playing overseas. Briscoe’s status remains to be seen; while it would be prudent for him to return for his junior season, his heart could be set on the NBA no matter what. Then there is Isaac Humphries; many thought he would either transfer or possibly return home to Australia and pursue a professional career. After his career-high twelve points on Sunday, many will hope he returns next season to become a key bench player and bring some stability to the squad.
No matter what happens, these young men will always be Wildcats, and we will remember them fondly for the hard work they put in this season. As we now begin the new countdown to Big Blue Madness in October, and we begin to look ahead to next season, be appreciative of what this team gave us this season and be proud of a group of young men who truly were a team, in every sense of the word.