- Illinois State Redbirds - November 30, 2015 - Rupp Arena - 7:00 PM EST - ESPN2
The mass exodus from Rupp Arena was nothing short of surreal.
With 38.5 seconds left and Baylor guard Brady Heslip at the free-throw line, the majority of Kentucky’s 24,192 fans fled for the exits. The only victory left for them was beating the traffic.
For the first time in three-plus seasons, Kentucky lost at home. Baylor stunned John Calipari’s Wildcats 64-55 on Saturday afternoon at Rupp Arena, ending Kentucky’s 55-game home winning streak and Coach Cal’s previously perfect mark at home as UK’s head coach.
Calipari’s record now stands at 54-1 at home as Kentucky’s lead man.
“Any time you can win at a place like Rupp with what Coach Cal has done here is a tremendous feat,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said.
So tremendous that it hadn’t happened in three-and-a-half years.
The last time UK lost at home was in March 2009 against Georgia on Senior Night. That loss ultimately ushered in the new era as Billy Gillispie left the Rupp Arena floor for the final time as UK’s coach.
The direction of the program has changed drastically since then, but the disappointment of a rare loss at home made for a stunning mood at Rupp Arena.
Although UK freshman Willie Cauley-Stein was unaware of the longevity of the home winning streak, he was shocked at Kentucky’s suddenly very apparent struggles.
The loss not only marked the end of UK’s pristine home run, it was the first back-to-back losses for Kentucky since February 2011 when the Cats dropped back-to-back games to Ole Miss and Florida. The reality of a 4-3 record and inevitable plummet in the rankings has hit home with the Cats.
“I feel like we came in here thinking that we were (last year’s) team, but we’re not that team,” said Cauley-Stein, who finished with six points and seven rebounds. “I think after the Notre Dame game and them storming the court … it really struck home. Like, we’re literally everybody’s championship game, and we’ve got to start playing like it’s our championship game every time we go out there to match their intensity.”
A game after the Cats were outplayed and “out-competed” at Notre Dame, the effort was there this game. The problem was the shots were not.
Kentucky shot a frigid 29.6 percent from the floor, including missing 18-of-22 shots from behind the 3-point line. The shooting performance was UK’s worst since hitting just 24.2 percent in a loss to Kansas on Jan. 7, 2006.
“No question Kentucky missed shots they are going to make later in the year,” Drew said.
Kentucky entered the game as the top shooting team in the country, but the Cats have hit just 40-of-118 shots over the last two games.
“That’s just how the cookie crumbles sometimes,” said freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who finished with a team-high 17 points, six rebounds and five assists. “Everybody has off nights. No one’s perfect. No one’s going to make every shot and no one’s going to do good every game. Everybody’s going to have that one game that they’re going to be in a slump.”
Coach Cal, who often says his players aren’t machines and computers and are going to mess up sometimes, would agree with that, but he had a more blunt assessment of the suddenly cold-shooting Cats.
“Our shot selection stunk,” Calipari said.
Baylor’s length may have had something to do with that. A year after losing to Kentucky with predominantly a man-to-man look in the 2012 Elite Eight, Drew decided to change things up and threw a zone at UK for most of the game.
With 7-foot-1 Isaiah Austin and 6-9 Cory Jefferson anchoring the frontline for the Bears, Kentucky struggled to finish at the rim, often missing two and three attempts from just a few feet out.
Baylor finished the game with eight blocks while the UK quartet of Nerlens Noel, Kyle Wiltjer, Julius Mays and Ryan Harrow combined to go 7 for 43 from the floor (16.3 percent).
“The greatest thing, we had a chance to win the game,” Calipari said. “But we are still trying to teach them how to finish games, and they don’t know.”
Baylor took control of the game late in the first half and stretched its lead to as many as 10 in the second half. It seemed like every time UK would threaten with a small run and cut the score to a couple possessions, Drew would call an opportune timeout and his team would hit a momentum-halting basket.
Pierre Jackson, for instance, hit a falling-down jumper as he was fouled after Kentucky had cut the lead to 49-46.
“We foul their best free-throw shooter, other than Heslip” Calipari said. “We foul him twice. What? They were struggling to score and (they were) giving us our chances. That’s what happens when you have a bunch of freshmen out there.”
Kentucky got back within a couple possessions several times, but the Cats could never muster one of those game-defining runs that last year’s national championship team seemed to come up with so often.
Ultimately, a key offensive rebound by Rico Gathers and a put-back as he was fouled was the final nail in the coffin for UK and its nation-best home winning streak.
“Again, we needed a competitive spirit and we needed more of a will to win,” Calipari said. “We are trying to find it. Nerlens blocks the ball … and we just don’t get the rebound. We have a man standing right there and he doesn’t have that will to win to go grab that ball, because we have to have that ball to win the game.
“We are still learning. It’s where we are.”
And Calipari, surprisingly, is OK with where his team is right now, pointing to the past struggles of his young teams at Kentucky and Memphis. Calipari said he wasn’t ‘fazed’ by the two-game losing streak.
“I told Coach (Joe B.) Hall, I’m good,” Calipari said. “I already beat his (home) record, so I’m fine. He laughed.”
His team, however, is not that good right now, he said. Calipari told his players exactly that after the game, noting that they need to get better both individually and collectively.
“We’ve just got a ways to go with this team and I think everybody now understands that you don’t just put a collection of players together,” Coach Cal said. “But it’s more than just our fans and everybody understanding; it’s our team understanding, ‘Are you willing to do what it takes?’ I don’t have a magic wand, folks.”
After bidding goodbye to the home winning streak, nobody is disagreeing with him.
“We’re not that good,” Cauley-Stein said. “Not yet.”