Friday, April 25, 2014

Connecticut 60 - 54 Kentucky (NCAA Tournament) (Arlington, Tex.)

Yes, it's taken me awhile to write this up.  You have to give someone a chance to mourn, and I really hated to see this season come to an end.

So let's start with the game.  The first half looked a lot like the other games UK played in the tournament.  The Cats fell behind -- they were down 30-15 at one point -- and then fought their way back into the game.  At the half, UConn led 35-31, and I thought UK was pretty well-positioned to take the lead in the second half.

Sure enough, UK's defense at the beginning of the second half was really good.  In the first eight minutes of the second half, UConn scored only six points.  But the Cats had scored only eight points, and UConn still led 41-39.  Here's what UK did with its possessions during those eight critical minutes:

1.  Andrew Harrison hit a three-pointer to make the score 35-34.
2.  James Young missed a jump shot
3.  James Young missed a three-pointer
4.  Dakari Johnson missed two free throws
5.  Andrew Harrison missed a jump shot
6.  James Young missed a jump shot
7.  Aaron Harrison hit a layup to make the score 37-36
8.  Alex Poythress committed a turnover
9.  Alex Poythress missed a three-pointer
10.  Julius Randle had a shot blocked
11.  Julius Randle made one of two free throws to make the score 39-37
12.  James Young committed a turnover
13.  James Young made two free throws to make the score 41-39

So in 13 possessions, the Cats had two turnovers.  On the other 11 possessions, they went 1-3 from three-point range, 1-5 from two-point range, and 3-6 from the free throw line.  Notice that most of the time, they were having to settle for jump shots because UConn would not let the Cats get the ball inside.

After this key stretch, UConn scored seven points in a minute to take a 48-39 lead with 11 minutes to go.  The Cats cut it to 48-47 with 8 minutes left -- but then Aaron Harrison missed a three-pointer that could have given us the lead -- and Shabazz Napier nailed a three to put UConn up 51-47.  Randle made a layup to cut the lead to 51-49, but then UConn got a three-pointer from Niels Giffy to go up by five.  Soon afterward, Randle was fouled -- but he could only make one of two free throws, and the Cats were never able to get within one possession again.  UConn played brilliantly down the stretch, and held on for a 60-54 win.

The hero of the game -- and the tournament -- was Shabazz Napier, who finished with 22 points and 6 rebounds, and who gave our guards all sorts of trouble on defense.  Look at these stats:

UConn guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatwright:  13-22 from the field, 6-6 from the line, 36 points.
Harrison twins:  6-16 from the field, 0-1 from the line, 15 points

Napier and Boatwright also chipped in 10 rebounds, which allowed UConn to out-rebound the Cats 34-33, thus preventing a lot of the second-chance baskets the Cats had gotten in other games.

For the Cats to overcome Napier and Boatwright, they needed to either make a lot of three-pointers or a lot of free throws.  Unfortunately, they went cold from the outside -- 5-16 for the game, and 1-7 in the second half.  As far as free throws, the Cats got 24 shots at the line -- to only 10 for UConn.  But the Huskies made all 10 of theirs, while UK went 13-24.

In the end, the Cats were beaten by a better version of the SEC teams that had given them so much trouble during the regular season.  UConn had quick and talented guards who could control the tempo and effectively prevent the Cats from getting easy baskets.  The Huskies had a bunch of big guys who could prevent UK from getting the second-chance points that were so vital to their offense.  And so they were able to force the Cats to live or die with the jump shooting that was the weakest part of their game.

To his credit, Coach Calipari saw this coming and said that the Cats would need a big game from James Young.  I thought Young gave it everything he had -- he scored 20 points and had 7 rebounds in one of his best games of the year.  But he made only 5-13 shots from the field, and that wasn't quite good enough for the title.

In both 1999 and 2004, I was extremely happy that UConn had knocked off very good Duke teams and won the national title instead of the Blue Devils.  Now UConn has done the same thing to UK -- beating us in the final four in 2011 and in the final game in 2014.  (True fact:  since 2011, the Cats have gone 0-2 in the tournament against UConn, and 15-0 against everyone else.)  Since 1999, the Huskies have won four national championships -- more than U of L or Kansas has ever won, and the same number that UK has won since 1958.  That is a very impressive accomplishment.  Because UConn was a seven seed, some folks (including me) thought they might be easier to beat than the other teams we faced in the tournament.  But they are the one team I wouldn't want to face again.

Of course, I know that there are young fans in Kentucky who will now hate UConn for years to come.  I've been there, and I feel their pain.  On the other hand, it would be silly to wrap up this season on such a gloomy note.  So let me tell a little story.

Thirty-nine years ago, I was a lonely third-grader trying to get used to life in Paducah.  My relatives were all from Tennessee, I was born in Alabama, and we had been living in Paducah for only two years.  I was still trying to work out what Kentucky was all about.  The books and puzzles always showed little horses on the maps of Kentucky, but we didn't have big horse farms where I lived.  I finally figured out that bluegrass isn't really blue, but to me the grass in McCracken County seemed just like the grass I saw in Tennessee.  In the world of sports, Alabama meant Bear Bryant and Sugar Bowls, but what did Kentucky have?

In March 1975, I found out what Kentucky had.  UK entered that tournament ranked number 6 in the country, but my mother explained that the Cats would have a hard time with number 10 Marquette in the first round (which was the round of 32 back then).  Instead, the Cats rolled 76-54.  A few days later, UK rolled over Central Michigan 90-73.  But now everyone explained to me that the Cats had reached the end of the line.  The next game was against Indiana, who hadn't lost a game all year.  In fact, they had already beaten UK by 24 points that season.  But on one of the most memorable days of my life as a fan, the Cats upset Indiana 92-90 to reach the Final Four.  A week later, they beat Syracuse to roll into the final game.  And there, of course, they were beaten by UCLA.  Our great freshmen -- Robey, Givens, and Phillips -- went 5-20 from the field, and that really hurt.

But that exciting run through the tournament changed my life.  When March 1975 began, I was mainly interested in football.  By the end of the month I had become a Kentucky basketball fan, and I've been one ever since.  The Wildcats offered me a way into my new home state, and a way to deal with the depressing winters in the upper South, and for most of the 38 seasons since, they've kept up their end of that bargain.

So my guess is that across the Commonwealth today, there are lots of kids who have had a blast in this magical run through the tournament, and who are hungry for more.  They'll shoot baskets with their friends during recess, and draw UK logos on their notebooks, and put up posters in their room.  And next November, they'll be bouncing off the walls with excitement for the new season.  As will I.

The Kentucky Wildcats became the last  team from the Commonwealth of Kentucky to be eliminated from this year's national championship race.  They finished the year with a record of 12-6 in the SEC and 29-11 overall.  They finished second in the SEC regular season, and second in the SEC tournament.  They won the NCAA Midwest Region, beating Kansas State, #2 Wichita State, # 5 Louisville, and #7 Michigan to do so.  They also beat # 12 Wisconsin in the national semi-finals, before losing that national title game to Connecticut.  They have earned a banner in the rafters at Rupp Arena, and will be remembered for years and years to come.

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