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Slow start, rebounding prove costly in Kentucky’s title game loss

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Throughout the season the Kentucky Wildcats have been one of the nation’s best when it comes to hitting the offensive glass. Rebounding nearly 42% of their missed shots on the season, John Calipari’s team ranked second in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. And with their superior size advantage entering Monday’s title game against UConn, the expectation of some was that Kentucky would be able to hurt the Huskies on the glass.

However that didn’t turn out to be the case and while the Wildcats’ free throw shooting (13-for-24) and the struggles of Aaron and Andrew Harrison didn’t help matters, their incredibly slow start and the fact that Kentucky couldn’t get those second-chance points were the real issues.

UConn led the game by as much as nine in the first ten minutes, and an 11-2 run would expand that lead to 15 with 5:59 remaining in the half. The guards struggled to get anything going with their ball screen action, and defensively the Wildcats had trouble containing UConn off the dribble. And that hole, which came as a result of the Huskies being the aggressors, proved to be too deep for Kentucky to climb out of.

MORE: UConn wins fourth national title | Harrison twins struggle

“Well you could say that, but the way we started the game probably cost us the game,” Calipari said when asked if Kentucky’s poor free throw shooting was the biggest issue. “Somebody said, ‘Well, why do you think you started that way?’ They’re all freshmen. They’re scared to death again. We tried to settle them down and we were rattled early. Then we settled down and started playing.

“But I have to give Connecticut credit now because the way they were aggressively picking up the ball. We told the guys, ‘If you don’t play with energy they’re going to.'”

That energy carried over to the 50/50 balls that can be so important in big games, with UConn getting the majority of those battles. And with this being the case, Kentucky was unable to take advantage of a statistical category that led to them being one of the most efficient offenses in the country this season (ranked 10th in adjusted offensive efficiency per kenpom.com).

Kentucky finished the game rebounding 27.8% of its misses, and they converted their ten offensive rebounds into just seven second-chance points. Dakari Johnson and Julius Randle, Kentucky’s two best offensive rebounders from a percentage standpoint, combined to grab three offensive rebounds on the night. Get a few more of those 50/50 balls and offensive rebounds, and maybe Kentucky makes up for the poor foul shooting and the slow start.

But that wasn’t the case, and UConn certainly deserves the credit for that. Throughout the NCAA tournament the Huskies have managed to take away the opposition’s “bread and butter,” with their Round of 64 win over Saint Joseph’s being the notable exception. Against Iowa State the Huskies neutralized Melvin Ejim, and in their Elite Eight win over Michigan State they limited the Spartans to just six points in the paint.

Clearly the plan of attack Monday night was to do whatever it took to keep Kentucky out of the lane and off the offensive glass, and UConn was able to do so for much of the night. While Kentucky hasn’t defended particularly well throughout the NCAA tournament, their offensive skill and the ability to make plays when needed carried them through to the national title game.

But when faced with an opponent that proved more than capable of taking away what they do best, the Wildcats were unable to muster enough offense to win their program’s ninth national title.

UNLV’s Stephen Zimmerman out with a knee injury

UNLV forward Stephen Zimmerman Jr. shoots against San Diego State during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Las Vegas. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
(L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
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The injury Stephen Zimmerman suffered on Saturday will keep the star UNLV freshman out for at least a week, a source told NBC Sports.

The injury is not thought to be serious, however. Zimmerman may be kept out for longer as a precaution, but that’s a result of the Runnin’ Rebels being in a situation where the rest of their regular season is relatively meaningless.

They’re not getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament regardless of how they finish out league play. With back-up center Ben Carter out with a torn ACL, it’s more important to make sure that Zimmerman, who is averaging 10.6 points and 9.1 boards this season, is totally healthy for the Mountain West tournament.

That tournament, mind you, will be played at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center.

So the Runnin’ Rebels, regardless of how poor they’ve played this season, will always have a chance to land an automatic bid.

Anyway, the more interesting aspect of this story is how Zimmerman injured the knee. It was a completely avoidable play that came after the whistle, but I’m not sure it was what you would call a “dirty play”. You tell me:

VIDEO: Buddy Hield is ‘all money’ on game-winning three vs. No. 24 Texas

Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield (24) takes a shot over Oklahoma State forward Chris Oliver during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Stillwater, Okla., Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)
(AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)
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With a little more than three minutes left on Monday night, No. 24 Texas held a 57-51 lead on No. 3 Oklahoma in Norman as Jordan Woodard struggled again and Buddy Hield failed to find the rhythm that he had throughout the first three months of the season.

At that point in the game, Hield was 4-for-14 from the floor with 15 points and four turnovers. He had just missed a pair of wide-open threes

“I couldn’t make a shot,” Hield said after the game. But that changed down the stretch. First, Hield finally got a three to drop. On the next possession, he got all the way to the rim and scored. On the following two possessions, he was fouled on a drive to the rim and hit four free throws. And after missing a pull-up jumper, Hield did this:

“I told coach I wanted the ball,” Hield said, “I saw Lammert coming to bite, so I pulled up.”

“It’s all money.”

Hield is already the favorite to win National Player of the Year, and this performance is only going to help his cause further. Think about it like this: Buddy was not good on Monday night, at least according to his (admittedly lofty) standards. But he still finished with 27 points and shook off a cold shooting night just in time to take over down the stretch.

Now think about this: Hield’s head coach has enough confidence in him to hand him the keys in the final minutes despite the fact that he’s struggling and on a team that has two other players that Lon Kruger trusts on game-winning possessions. Think about it. When Oklahoma beat West Virginia at the buzzer, it was Jordan Woodard that the play was drawn up for. When they beat LSU, it was Isaiah Cousins that got the rock on the final possession while Hield was used as a decoy. .

Want to talk about coaching luxuries?

Kruger has three guards that can shoot, penetrate and score, and penetrate and kick, and one of them is the National Player of the Year that doesn’t mind being used as a decoy.