38 and Done: Kentucky loses late-game touch, potential perfect season, on college basketball’s biggest stage

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INDIANAPOLIS — The media poured into the Kentucky locker room in silent fashion on Saturday night after the Wildcats’ perfect season ended at the hands of Wisconsin. You could hear a pin drop as dozens of reporters slowly filed in to see the swollen eyes and bewildered expressions on the faces of Kentucky’s players.

Most Wildcat players had towels over their heads while doing everything they could to squeeze their over-sized basketball frames as far into their tiny lockers as they possibly could. Reporters approached Kentucky’s players in the locker room, but nobody wanted to be the first to address any of the players.

“We understood we had a great season,” freshman point guard Tyler Ulis said in a quiet, reflective tone. “But, basically, everyone understands that we did it for nothing.”

“It’s like a movie… like… the main character dies,” junior big man Willie Cauley-Stein said. “And you’re like, ‘What?! Why did the main character die?’ And you’re just, like, super-hurt over the main character dying or the good guy, the guy you never suspect is going to die ends up dying. No cliffhangers, no nothing. That’s the way it feels.”

Wisconsin’s win over unbeaten Kentucky is not shocking because of the result — a No. 1 seed beating a No. 1 seed should never be considered that big of an upset.

What’s shocking is how Kentucky, so cool and calm under pressure all season long, finally succumbed in a late-game situation. Three shot-clock violations as Kentucky held a four-point lead with a little over 6 minutes left changed the entire momentum of the game.

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So what happened to Kentucky’s offense? Was head coach John Calipari instructing his offense to run some clock while holding a lead? Three straight possessions ending in a shot-clock violation in a late-game situation would seem to indicate that the Wildcats were trying to slow things down and run clock. But Wisconsin’s defense forced Kentucky into some bad shots.

“It wasn’t planned, it was just the way their defense was set up,” Ulis said of the Wisconsin defense. “They were slowing things down, sagging off, and they just did a great job.”

For the first time all season, the Wildcats were on the ropes and didn’t have the late-game magic we’ve seen so much of this season.

“We didn’t slow it down. We were trying to post the ball, run the pick-and-rolls, the stuff we were running. They crowded a little bit, the guys got a little bit tentative,” Calipari said. “We were trying to still play. The thing that was tough is we are a finishing team, that’s what we’ve been, and we didn’t. They did and we didn’t. That’s why they’re still playing and we’re not.”

With Kentucky’s offense going completely stagnant during that stretch, it’s easy to wonder why Calipari kept putting the ball in the hands of the Harrison twins when they weren’t making plays. Andrew Harrison said some of the possessions going awry were the result of him not listening to coach’s instructions.

“Maybe I didn’t execute. I mean, we didn’t execute as a team,” Harrison said. “Me being the point guard, I didn’t do what coach told me on a couple of occasions.”

Calipari immediately came to the defense of his point guard without missing a beat.

“He did fine. You did fine,” Calipari re-assured Harrison.

Freshman center Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky’s late-game workhorse during the Elite 8 win over Notre Dame, also stopped getting consistent touches during that poor offensive stretch. Towns wouldn’t let Calipari — or his teammates — take the blame for the way the offense crumbled and didn’t get him the ball.

“Coach did a great job. We all did coming up to this game. We had an absolute beautiful game plan. We just got beat,” Towns said. “I mean, we can’t go by a coaching decision. Without Coach Calipari, we don’t even get to 38 at all, neither this 39th game. There’s no way it’s a coaching decision.”

Nobody is going to point fingers at each other over the loss in the Kentucky locker room, but it’s easy to wonder if Calipari could have done things a little differently?

Why didn’t Ulis see the floor sooner when Kentucky’s offense began struggling so mightily? The Wildcat offense moves the ball far more effectively with Ulis in the game because he’s the best natural distributor on the Kentucky roster and a completely selfless player.

Ulis wasn’t on the floor during all three possessions that ended in a shot-clock violation. He also remained on the bench after a timeout following those three lost possessions. You have to wonder if Calipari made the right call going with the Harrison twins’ brand of hero ball on those possessions over a play-making guard who seems to thrive in tough spots?

Given the Harrison twins’ propensity to make clutch plays late in games the last two seasons, it’s also understandable to see Calipari sticking with what has worked for Kentucky so many times before.

“If you want to blame somebody, blame me. We were down eight. The game probably should have been over. These kids just fought,” Calipari said. “All of a sudden I look up, we’re up four. I’m like, ‘we’re going to win this thing.’ Then, you know, a play here, a play there, all of a sudden we don’t post it. They crowd us, we don’t post it again, we take a late shot… We’re not a team that takes shot clock violations. We got three.”

The way Kentucky lost its perfect season is going to be dissected a million and one ways as people look back and wonder how a team that looked so unbeatable finally lost — and on college basketball’s biggest stage. What’s lost in the equation is how incredible it is that it took this long for Kentucky to lose a game this season. They’re still the first — and only — team to start a season 38-0.

Most end-of-game situations in close games involved the Wildcats wearing down an opponent like a boa constrictor slowly squeezing the life out of its prey. Against Wisconsin, Kentucky couldn’t get it done on either end of the floor with the game on the line. The Wildcat offense struggled and they couldn’t get necessary stops to stay within striking distance in the final minute.

The criticism for this loss — and the season without a national championship — is going to fall heavily on Calipari. He wants people to remember that Kentucky still went on an unprecedented run. And Calipari is not entirely wrong with that sentiment. Kentucky will just happen to be the historic footnote instead of the national champion when everybody looks back at the 2015 Final Four.