For the first time in school history, the Kentucky Wildcats have lost three straight games at home in Rupp Arena, as Gonzaga stole an 89-85 win on Saturday afternoon.
After a slow start, the No. 17-ranked Wildcats fought back and had a chance to win or tie in the final 13.9 seconds, but a turnover sent the Bulldogs to the free-throw line to seal the victory.
Kentucky got off to another slow start, a regular recipe for home losses this season, as Gonzaga jumped out to an 11-4 lead and had its biggest lead at 42-29, the largest halftime deficit of the season for UK.
In the second half, the Wildcats cut the lead to 51-49 on an Adou Thiero dunk before Antonio Reeves drilled a three-pointer to give the Wildcats only its second lead of the game at 52-51 with 13:24 remaining. That’s when point guard Reed Sheppard took over, scoring the next five points on a lay-up and a traditional three-point play at the rim to push the lead to 57-51 after the made free throw.
A dunk got the Bulldogs back on top again at 64-63 with just under 9:00 to play, and Gonzaga led 80-77 on two free throws with 3:03 remaining. A Sheppard lay-up cut the lead to 80-79, but Gonzaga found a way to gut out a big win in Lexington.
Here are the five things to know from Saturday’s loss at home.
Adou Thiero comes up big against in the Zags
How good was Adou Thiero on Saturday? The 6-foot-8 forward was simply sensational with five dunks and showed relentless grit and determination to keep the Wildcats within striking distance. He also had a three in the second half and was Kentucky’s most physical player on the boards.
After missing eight games due to back soreness, Thiero looks to be back to full strength and just might bring down the rim over the final eight games of the regular season.
Young team shows fight, but not enough
Let’s be honest. Things looked bleak in the first half for a struggling Kentucky team that seemed overmatched inside by the visiting Bulldogs. However, the young Cats slowly pecked away at the lead and finally made a run in the opening minutes of the second half to get things rolling in front of a packed house at Rupp Arena.
Sheppard got things going offensively in the second half and seemed to score at will to keep Kentucky close. The freshman guard blocked a shot and converted another three-point play on a twisting lay-up and free throw to tie things at 75-all at the 4:00 mark, just another example of his impact in close games.
Sadly, it wasn’t enough in a game that came right down to the final seconds before Sheppard turned the ball over with Kentucky down two, and the Zags made their free throws.
Kentucky defense takes another step back
Once again, Kentucky gave up too many open looks and lost the battle on the boards. Foul trouble also plagues 7-footer Aaron Bradshaw and Ugonna Onyenso, and Zvonimir Ivišić struggled to guard the post and made things way too easy for the Gonzaga bigs, who combined for 20 first-half offensive rebounds.
The Wildcats did defend the three a little better in the opening half (Gonzaga was just 3-for-14 from deep), but the Wildcats also played different guys in the first half and failed to find any rhythm on either end of the floor.
Kentucky has to find its ride-or-die lineup and stick with one group for longer periods. We are simply too late in the season to still be experimenting with lineups.
Will Kentucky ever play with a full roster?
With just eight games left in the regular season, the Wildcats have yet to play with a full roster this season. On Saturday, Tre Mitchell missed his second straight game with a back injury while D.J. Wagner returned after missing the last four games with an ankle injury.
This season, a total of eight players have missed action for one reason or another: Aaron Bradshaw (foot injury), Ugonna Onyenso, (foot injury), Adou Thiero (back soreness), Zvonimir Ivišić (NCAA eligibility), Rob Dillingham (illness), Justin Edwards (leg injury), Tre Mitchell (back injury), and D.J. Wagner (ankle injury).
Of course, that’s not the only reason why Kentucky seemingly can’t win a big game now, but it’s definitely contributed to their fall.
Wildcats hit final stretch in SEC schedule
Kentucky entered the day in fifth place in SEC standings behind South Carolina (8-2), Auburn (8-2), Alabama (8-2), and Tennessee (7-2). The Wildcats now have eight regular season games remaining, all conference games, with road games at Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, and Tennessee.
Kentucky will also host Ole Miss, Alabama, and Vanderbilt, so Coach John Calipari and the Wildcats need to go on a winning streak to improve a conference tournament seed and, most importantly, work their way back into a higher seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats return to conference action on Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. ET against Ole Miss at Rupp Arena before hitting the road to play at No. 12-ranked Auburn on Saturday. It’s do-or-die time if Kentucky is going to solidify a top-seven seed in the NCAA Tournament and avoid playing a top seed in the opening weekend.