They had it and then they didn’t. They came back and then they let it go.
No, that’s not the narrative of the year so far; rather a description of how Kentucky let a late-game lead turn into an overtime loss to Arkansas on Thursday. But it wouldn’t be that far off the season either.
The No. 17/15 Wildcats charged back from a nine-point second-half deficit, but costly missed free throws, early turnovers and a continued failure to turn the corner cost Kentucky (21-7, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) in a shocking loss Thursday night at Rupp Arena.
UK went to overtime for the second straight game and the second time this season against Arkansas, but the results were nearly as devastating as the Michael Qualls’ buzzer-beating dunk in Fayetteville, Ark., more than a month ago. Kentucky dropped is rematch with the Razorbacks, 71-67, failing to build off what appeared to be a momentum-building overtime win against LSU just days earlier.
“We took two steps back today,” John Calipari said.
Coach Cal, who has touted his team’s credentials of late, throwing out the possibility that his group could still be in play for a No. 1 seed come NCAA Tournament time, didn’t mince words or hide his disappointment in the postgame press conference.
“All the things I’m talking about, player-driven, everything was coach-driven today,” Coach Cal said. “There was not one player-driven thing today. That’s what happens in that kind of game.”
What happened is the Cats slept walk through the opening minutes, played into Arkansas’ strength by turning the ball over (18 total turnovers) and allowing the Razorbacks to get in transition, and then they had to fight back.
Kentucky did come back, rallying from a 13-point first-half deficit and a nine-point hole in the second half, but by the time the Cats’ pressure defense tightened up, led a 14-2 run and sparked a 57-52 lead, UK’s tank ran empty.
“There was about a five-minute stretch I thought, ‘Now we’re playing.’ About a five-minute stretch,” Calipari said. “Then all of a sudden two guys started walking around, heads went down. I’m like, ‘You got to be kidding me.’ ”
“This may have been a 15- or 18-point game if Willie wasn’t in there,” Calipari said.
UK wasted a solid effort from Willie Cauley-Stein, who scored 16 points and grabbed a career-high-tying 13 rebounds. Take away Cauley-Stein’s 8-for-12 shooting and the rest of Kentucky made just 18 of 64 (28.1 percent).
He was in there, but UK couldn’t capitalize.
Needing to sink free throws late in the game to seal the outcome, the Cats bricked, clanked and rimmed out their chances, giving Arkansas new life in overtime. Overall, UK was 12 of 22 at the free-throw line, a 54.5-percent mark, but the misses were magnified in crunch time when Kentucky missed eight of its final 12 free throws over the last 11:18 of regulation.
“They got tired, and we could tell when they was going up there and missing,” Arkansas’ Coty Clarke said.
Conversely, Arkansas hit all 16 of its foul shots, quite obviously the difference in the outcome.
“It was big-time,” said Julius Randle, who notched his 15th double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) but missed two free throws in the second half. “I think it cost us the game.”
Calipari said it was more than free throws that led to UK’s second loss in three games at Rupp Arena. He cited two players who simply didn’t show up to play, nearly a dozen missed one-foot shots, a failure to come up with loose balls and a maddening inability to follow directions after timeouts.
“At one point I sat down and I would not speak to them. ‘’What are we running?’ I already told you in the timeout,” Coach Cal said.
The win for Arkansas (19-9, 8-7 SEC) was the Razorbacks’ first in Lexington since their 1994 national championship season. More important than history for Arkansas is it got the Hogs, winners of six of their last seven games, back into the NCAA Tournament picture.
For UK, the loss raises more doubts for a team that just can’t seem to maintain momentum. The players spoke on Wednesday of having more fun since that overtime win over LSU and the ensuing celebration, but instead of turning the corner, the Cats just look like they are turning in circles.
“You know, all I can tell you is disappointing,” Calipari said. “I didn’t expect it. I thought they’d come out and play. They didn’t. The other team played harder than they played.”
And now they have little time to rebound.
The Cats have a quick turnaround with a road game at South Carolina on Saturday. The team will have exactly one day of practice on Friday before flying to Columbia, S.C.
The players say that could be a good thing.
“Personally, I think it’s a good thing because you don’t got much time to soak in the loss,” Cauley-Stein said. “You got to come right back at it, got to take the medicine tomorrow at practice and then you got a game the next day. That’s love to me. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
But Alex Poythress admitted after the game that it would be hard to move on until practice on Friday. He said the postgame locker room was a somber one, one filled with a couple of players who had tears in their eyes.
“We all hate to lose,” Poythress said. “We didn’t come here to lose. Nobody likes losing.”
More times than they hoped to or anyone could have predicted this season, they’ve got to find a way to bounce back – and do so quickly.
“Disappointing,” Calipari said. “but it’s done now. We’ll have to deal with it. We have one practice and go to South Carolina. It’s almost like, next, let’s see. The difference with the Florida game was there was so much to be encouraged about, we could move on. This one is almost like you’re waiting. What’s going to happen in this next game. Hopefully they understand and take stock.”
Randle named Oscar Robertson Trophy finalist