MOON, Pa. — Unless you win the national championship like Kentucky did last season, there’s never a perfect way for a team to end a season. However, sometimes there can be a fitting way — and that’s just what happened to Kentucky.
A team that lacked toughness, cohesiveness, playmakers and focus got dominated early, battled back and then made crucial mistakes at the end to fill 59-57 to Robert Morris on Tuesday night in the first round of the NIT.
“They deserved to win. If we had won at the buzzer, it would have been a shame. We didn’t deserve to win,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who said he grew up only about “two 7-irons” away from the campus.
He was right, too. Robert Morris roared out to a 10-0 lead over Kentucky — a team that even Calipari admitted may not have wanted to be playing after falling to Vanderbilt on Friday in the SEC tournament to lose an NCAA tournament bid on Sunday — in front of a sold-out crowd of 3,444 that had many fans lining up three hours before tip-off to secure the best seats.
Kentucky got back into the game by halftime, but trailed 53-42 before an 11-0 run tied the game with 3 minutes, 15 seconds to play. Kentucky tied the game again at 57-57 with 42.5 seconds left, but with time running out on the shot clock the Colonials’ Mike McFadden got an offensive rebound after a Willie Cauley-Stein block on an inbounds play and was fouled. He hit both free throws with 8.7 seconds to go.
The Wildcats got an open 3-pointer for Kyle Wiltjer, who had missed his only 3-pointer Tuesday and 19 of his last 22 tries, just before the buzzer. But it missed, touching off a court-storming by the Robert Morris students and a funeral-like procession off the court one last time this season for the Cats.
“Robert Morris played great,” Calipari said. “They said we could not withstand their physical toughness, so go at them. They played a physical, hard-nosed game. We were down 10-0 and the game was too rough. We had guys that couldn’t play. Just couldn’t put them in. We were trying to win.”
One, obviously, was point guard Ryan Harrow. He cried after Kentucky’s loss to Vandy and blamed himself for the loss and letting his team down after missing 13 of 15 shots and making four turnovers. He didn’t get to miss that many shots this time because despite two early scores, he played just nine minutes, including just two the second half when Calipari turned the team over to junior Jarrod Polson, who had 10 points, three assists and one rebound. More importantly, he played with some pizzazz that Harrow didn’t.
Calipari said it wasn’t only Harrow that backed down. He recalled early last season when teams tried to play rough with UK before the Cats decided they wanted no part of that.
“Guys said this ain’t happening and negated that and by the end of the year you could not play us physical and tough and win the game,” Calipari said. “We never accepted that was an issue and that we had to change how we played.”
Against Robert Morris, Alex Poythress had six points and two rebounds. Willie Cauley-Stein had nine points, four rebounds and four turnovers. Neither could dominate inside.
Julius Mays, who tried to be UK’s team leader, was 1 for 5 from the field after going 2 for 8 in the Vanderbilt loss. Wiltjer made one of four shots and had no rebounds in 10 minutes.
Archie Goodwin overcame a shaky start to score 18 points and almost give UK the win.¿He also had seven rebounds, one assist and one steal. He even took a hard shot to the face on a deliberate foul after a steal and made both free throws — he was 8-for-8 at the line — while refusing to back down. But other than Goodwin, Polson and Jon Hood, who had two points and three rebounds in 15 minutes, the fight just was not there.
Yet Calipari insisted he was not relieved to have the season end.
“I wanted to keep coaching them. The reason was I was hoping the light would go on for Alex. The light would go on for Kyle. The light would go on for Archie,” Calipari said. “You don’t know when the light goes on. This was good for them. They needed a game exactly light this to see what they needed and then evaluate where they are. I am tough enough to play college basketball. "Maybe I don’t have it.
“We fouled twice in a tie game. Why foul? Why not play disciplined? Well, we have not been disciplined all year. It kind of ended on a note that we have been talking about all year. You can’t win if you play that way.”
Calipari vowed it won’t be that way again. He got caught with little depth, especially after Nerlens Noel went down with a knee injury, and not enough depth. He’s already signed six players for next year and could add another star Wednesday when Julius Randle makes his college choice. Goodwin, Poythress and Cauley-Stein all indicated after this loss they expected to be back next year, too.
“This was humbling. You think you are supposed to win 30 games, win 35 games, get to the Elite Eight, win tournament championships, win the national title. This was a humbling experience, but also a learning experience,” Calipari said. “I did things I have never done to try and help the team. The things I did to try and save guys, when you have more people they won’t play this much.”
But that’s next year, and for now the Cats can only think about what was supposed to be a rebuilding year that would turn into an NCAA tournament-ready team instead turned into a NIT bust.