Kentucky NCAA hopes end after being bounced from SEC tourney

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Kentucky’s season ended with a missed last-second shot in the SEC Tournament.

But things began spiraling downward for the Wildcats long before Thursday’s disappointing 74-73 setback against Mississippi State that sealed their fate: No NCAA Tournament this year.

When the Bulldogs’ Iverson Molinar made two free throws with seven seconds left, it assured the Wildcats (9-16) will miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013 and just the second in John Calipari’s 12-year tenure in Lexington.

With Duke withdrawing from the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament due to a positive COVID test, it will be the first time since 1976 that both the Blue Devils and Kentucky will not be in the NCAAs.

Digesting the reality and enduring a losing season at college basketball’s winningest program will make for a long offseason for the Wildcats.

“I’ve never lost this many games in my life in basketball consecutively like this,” graduate guard Davion Mintz said. “I know other guys on this roster haven’t, either. But now you know how it feels. You don’t want to climb back into that hole. You don’t want that pain to come back.”

Kentucky dug that deep hole in the season’s first month, and it became harder to climb out of as the losses piled up.

The Wildcats were able to string together a couple of three-game winning streaks, but still finished the season seven games under .500 in the pandemic-shortened season. Those spurts merely halted slides of six and four games, respectively, which meant the blue-blood program needed to mount its longest winning steak of the season and win the SEC Tournament to extend the season.

“We were a couple of wins away from being a team, even with a bad record, we were right there,” Calipari said of Kentucky’s NCAA prospects. “But at the end of the day, you’ve gotta win games and you’ve gotta be tough and you’ve got to play winning basketball. … We were never able to get fully engaged in that.”

The last time Kentucky was out of the Big Dance was in 2013 after going 21-12 – then was promptly bounced from the NIT by Robert Morris in the first round. Don’t look for the Wildcats in any postseason tourney this year. It’s the program’s first losing campaign since going 13-19 in 1988-89, one that approached historic proportions as Kentucky’s worst since the 1926-27 squad began 1-8 on the way to a 3-13 ending.

An opening-game rout of neighboring Morehead State – which went on to win the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament for an automatic NCAA bid – was followed by a six-game losing streak that included a loss to rival Louisville. The Wildcats rebounded to win their first three SEC games, only to seesaw between a four-game skid and three-game winning streak.

Developing chemistry took time for a team that returned just sophomore forward Keion Brooks Jr. and welcomed 10 new faces. Like many teams, the Wildcats had little practice or free time together because of pandemic restrictions.

Injuries that sidelined Brooks the first nine games and Terrence Clarke for more than two months until Thursday didn’t help either, leaving the Wildcats vulnerable in the post.

One of the main issues for the Wildcats was putting up points, as Kentucky ranked 200th in Division I in scoring. The offense began showing some promise in mid-February, though not consistent enough to get the wins needed to get close to .500 and merit postseason consideration.

The inconsistent play that led to many ebbs and flows also raised questions about the talent level of the consensus No. 1 ranked recruiting class, along with the Hall of Famer’s one-and-done model. His coaching methods and rotations also came under fire.

It’s unclear which Wildcats freshmen will enter the NBA draft.

The most likely candidate is freshman forward Isaiah Jackson, who blossomed into a formidable rim protector before recently revealing his offensive skills. He’s projected as a lottery pick despite fouling out with just seven points and three rebounds in 19 minutes against MSU.

Guard Brandon Boston Jr. battled offensive consistency all season but is rated as a first-round selection on several draft sites.

Mintz and Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr – are likely gone as seniors, though both could return if the NCAA grants an extra season of eligibility because of the pandemic that created pauses for many programs.

Whatever happens, Kentucky has work to do to bounce back from this low point in program history.

“I’m disappointed in the record, but not disappointed in these kids,” Calipari said, being careful not to look too far ahead. “We weren’t what we thought we could be in different spots, but we’ll address that when this winds down.”

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.