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Requiem for a team stopped short


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On Saturday afternoon, I sat down and wrote an entire post about how no matter what happened vs. North Carolina, this season was a success to me. I had just walked out of the best press conference of the season, in which the team was loose, happy, and downright lovable. Not only had Kentucky just beaten UCLA to avenge December’s loss, they did it in convincing fashion, with De’Aaron Fox getting the best of Lonzo Ball (and his dad) and Malik Monk finding his three-point shot. The North Carolina game loomed, but watching this team transform into the one we’ve all been waiting for was enough for me. I saved that post as a draft, content to just get it off my chest, and went into yesterday with an open mind, ready to accept whatever outcome the basketball gods had in store.

And then the game happened. The funny thing about the loss is that I don’t think I would be as upset today had the Cats lost by ten, like it seemed they might in the first half. For most of the game, I never really thought Kentucky would win. In the first half, the Cats got hosed by the officials but the Tar Heels missed plenty of shots, making just enough mistakes to let Kentucky hang around. When Kentucky made its rally in the second half, my heart lurched and all that “no regrets” stuff went out the window. I had prepared myself for a loss, but here came Isaac Humphries of all people, making me believe again. When UNC went up by seven with a minute left, I once again braced myself for the worst, only for De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk to drag my heart back into it. After Monk’s three to tie it with nine seconds left, I had just talked myself into this being the greatest story of all time when Maye wrote the sad final chapter six seconds later. Game over. Season over.

So, is this season still a success? It’s hard to see in the bleak light of the morning after, but I still believe so. Yes, had the Cats beaten the Heels, the path to the national championship was wide open and ready for the taking; however, North Carolina was the best team left besides Kentucky and there is no shame in losing to them. Plus, you have to appreciate how far this team came. Remember how bleak things looked in late January? Kentucky lost three games in a two-week span, bringing Cal’s haters out of the woodwork; however, while the BBN braced itself for what could be another short March, the team quietly went to work. Hampered by illness and injury, De’Aaron Fox slowly returned to form. In the shadow of bigs like Anthony Davis and Karl Towns, Bam Adebayo became a consistent force down low. When Malik Monk’s shot failed him, he discovered other ways to contribute. Seniors Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis shed their bench status and became clutch contributors, unwilling to waste another second of their final days in blue and white. As college basketball focused on Duke, North Carolina, and the almighty ACC, the Cats steeled themselves for battle with ugly win after ugly win in the SEC, in retrospect, an underrated feat. For once, everyone was sleeping on Kentucky, including a good portion of its own fanbase.

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And then came the postseason, a wild seven-game ride in which all the parts started coming together at just the right time. With the clock running down, this group transformed, barreling into the tournament like De’Aaron Fox towards the basket, picking up confidence with each game. With increased media opportunities came more glimpses into this squad’s personality, which, at times, had been hard to pinpoint. The fact that many fans had a hard time falling in love with this team for so long isn’t the team’s fault at all; over the years, Kentucky fans have become increasingly spoiled by players whose on the court talent was matched by their off the court personality. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl Towns, and Tyler Ulis come to mind as players who have won the BBN over with their personalities, and maybe it’s because of the fanbase’s intense emotional attachment to the 2015 team and Ulis that it took a while to fall for this group. This team is full of great kids, but man, what a hard act to follow.

Yet, as the season inched closer to midnight, this group started talking and the BBN listened. Monk was the player who, no matter how much he struggled, you could count on to make a big shot; Fox, the fearless, confident leader; Bam, the lovable and hard-working big; Briscoe, the bulldog. And then there are the seniors, the heart and soul of the whole bunch. Years from now, people will probably mention Fox and Monk first when talking about this team, but you’re never going to convince me that Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis aren’t the reason everything came together at the end. How special was it that two Kentucky kids played above themselves to help a group of freshmen gel?

Fittingly, in the end, this team won fans over not because of one player, but because of their bond. I’ll always remember three moments with them: the bench sprinting out to meet Dominique Hawkins after one of many huge plays in the SEC Tournament; the starters cutting up and laughing at the podium on Saturday; and Bam and De’Aaron clutching each other as they sobbed last night. As Fox said, that was a locker room that cared, not just about the glory, but about each other, and seeing it come to such a painful end was shattering.

© Justin Ford

© Justin Ford

So, where will this group land in terms of legacy? This is subjective, so everyone will have a different answer, but for me, the 2012, 2015, and 2010 teams will always be at the top in the Calipari era. Even though only one won a national championship, all three teams were just special. From there, I’d go with the 2014 team because that run felt like destiny and taught us never to give up. I keep waffling on whether this team or the 2011 team comes next, but I think we can all agree that 2016 and 2013 round out the eight seasons. Had Luke Maye missed that shot and Kentucky gone on to win in overtime, would the 2017 team rank higher? Probably. But like I said last night, that’s the cruelest part of all of this: just as this team was really coming into its own, it was over. The videos of the players crying in the locker room were doubly as heartbreaking because you realized just how much this team cares. The fact that had they won, the path to the title was so wide open is just salt in the wound. Right now, it all feels like a journey cut short, a dream never fully realized, destined to lie behind the hazy curtain of “what if.”

…But, for 40 or so hours this weekend, it felt right. Life again on scorched Earth. And for this fan, that counts for something.

Article written by Mrs. Tyler Thompson

No, I will not make you a sandwich, but you can follow me on Twitter @MrsTylerKSR or email me.

21 responses to “Requiem for a team stopped short”

  1. Luether

    Mrs TT, I greatly appreciate the extra effort you and other KSR staff members have put into helping the BBN get to know and follow this Team to the very end…

    1. catsarerunnin

      Mrs.TT Luether has “sources” in case you ever need inaccurate or ridiculous info….

  2. bballdoc

    Tyler, this piece confirms that you are KSR’s most accomplished writer, and I think you have a great take on BBN’s feelings for its players. You’re doing a great job!

  3. catsarerunnin

    Thanks Mrs. TT for saying it perfectly. You’re work here at KSR is outstanding. Go Cats!

  4. Game Changer

    Nicely written Mrs. Thompson

    I was 18 years old at a party when Laettner hit the shot… I was at a party… The party was over. Even though that hurt I justified it by telling myself that we never should have been there in the first place… we were overachieving … way overachieving.

    When UAB beat us as the 8th seed and we were the #1 seed… I told myself there goes Tubby ball again.

    When Wisconsin beat us… I thought it was just really poor coaching in the last 5 minutes… but I accepted it because we went to the Final Four…. and we didn’t get beat by a last second shot…. Wisconsin won that game… we could only blame ourselves

    This one hurts the most… because we were the better team, Calipari actually has done his best coaching this season, the players are all likable… The referees stole it… no other way around it. When you play an entire half without your starters and are down by 5 at half time… when it is apparent that the odds are stacked against you and yet you find a miraculous way of tying the game and then, and then… the most gut wrenching thing happens. We should have won but we didn’t and this time it was in no way our fault.

    1. WatchutalkinboutWillis

      This is a very good point. Calipari really has done the best coaching this season that I have ever seen him do.
      I wish he had been able to call timeout…but regardless, this was a very good team and I can’t help but think the refs are the ones mostly to blame for them not winning.

  5. BEnglish017

    Maybe not a success by most UK fans standards including mine unfortunately. I don’t even celebrate Final Fours. 24 hours later though I realize that I loved this team. Early on they became the most fun team since the Wall/Cousins year and then around January they seemed to be as hard to watch as a Billy Gillispie team. Once they started to learn to win, they still weren’t necessarily fun on the court but evolved into something special. Seeing Hawkins and Willis have success which is rare for seniors (especially from Kentucky) at Kentucky in the Cal era. I get frustrated with Cal at times bc he’s so stubborn and I think there are adjustments that could lead to further success but at the end of the day since he got here it’s been great. There have been some lumps but I wouldn’t trade him for any coach in the country. I listen to him say the same thing in interviews 25 times, I love seeing the best of the best come here, and I love watching the NBA draft. Kentucky basketball may not be hanging championship Banners but they are loading the NBA with top level talent. I don’t like one and done’s but that’s the current system. Hopefully it changes one day and we get to see some evolution of these players. Until then I’ll continue to get excited to see what and who’s next. As far as a successful season….maybe it’s not for Kentucky but the SEC is looking pretty damn good for the future and that’s exciting.

  6. Bobbum Man

    Great article… I view the season as a success still… it’s hard because as you said they were playing their best basketball and if they get past UNC who knows. Another special group of great kids, for how good Cal is at bringing in talent you come to appreciate just as much the heart and character of the kids he goes after. So hard to watch them lose but you know they had such a fun year, we saw it all the time. Congrats to them and best of luck in whatever they decide, they’ll always have BBN no matter what

  7. kentucky25

    Very well said. You are by far the best at KSR! I appreciate you taking time and thinking things through before you post them. Your colleague Drew could learn a thing or two about that. When he said De’Aaron Fox failed us last night, I lost a lot of respect for him. Thank you for restoring my faith in KSR!

  8. gottodoit

    We did okay. They comported themselves like champions. Like us, three more teams will be greatly disappointed by tournament’s end. Just the way it is. I like us the way we are. Proud of the Cats.

  9. Debbe May

    Wonderful article. It touched my heart.

  10. Ched17

    To me for some reason I don’t view the 2012 team as my favorite. I mean they are but they aren’t. They are the title team and I loved them for that but at the same time there wasn’t a process, that team had it. They are great and they dominated much of the season. Same with the 2010 team and the 2015 team. All of those teams are great and should be in recognized in the legacy of Kentucky Wildcat basketball but for me I love the teams that struggle. The teams that you can watch their growth. You hate them and complain about them for most of the season but then they click and boom it’s there. The 2011 was great for that. They couldn’t win a road game but they figured it out, they grinded out wins, and Brandon Knight was the clutch leader of the offense while Jorts was the personality that endeared the BBN. The 2013 just never got it and that was sad. They never bought in and they were flawed because of weaknesses in personalities and abilities at certain positions. The 2014 team was when I bought into Calipari’s process, that team struggled and struggled but then they got it and they ran through the NCAA tournament with classic wins and heart stopping buzzer beaters. It was a joy to watch that team grow. After that season I was a believer in Cal’s system, I always tell myself to trust the process. Trust that when the teams struggle is when Cal does his best work. He’s a psychologist cloaked as a coach and once those guys buy in they are great. 2016’s team I believe bought in but I don’t think the freshman talent pool was enough to help us against the senior laden teams that season. It just wasn’t a good fit that year, that team had obvious flaws it couldn’t overcome in the frontcourt. It was unfortunate but it happens. Then this years team came along and wow what a ride they put us on at first but even in the dominance and fun of December everyone truly knew that the defense was going to be an issue. Then they grew, they fought, and they changed from the run and gun fun style to a grind it out and work for it team. They became the 2011 squad. They would struggle a bit, play good solid defense, and at the end of the game they would figure out a way to win. Sunday, it seemed like a had done it again. They fought and trapped with 4 of their 5 starters on the bench, Mulder, Gabriel, Humphreys, Briscoe, and Hawkins played North Carolina even for the last 6 minutes of the half. Think about that. They got the crowd into and the belief started to grow. Carolina made a great comeback late because that’s what good teams do and I prepared for the loss, but Monk and Fox wouldn’t let the BBN stop believing. That’s what makes this team so one of my favorites. It’s because they had to fight for it, they had to struggle a bit, but they made you believe. Cruelly at times, true but they forced you to believe in them. Sure I loved the the 2010, 2012, and 2015 teams but they were dominated you expected greatness from this and you got it. You believed and you should have those years. This years team forced you to believe with their heart and refusing to lose mantra that they learned through the course of the year. That’s what makes them special to me, is that believing in them wasn’t a forgone conclusion for the BBN but in the end this team forced you to be a believer.

  11. CatesDuncan

    Besides the 38-1 team, I think I miss this team the most

  12. canecat

    Now, I am getting misty, again. Dangit I hate to lose; double dangit I hate realizing I won’t see this team together, ever. Really not fair to fans, coaches, state, school, and most importantly this great group of young men. Always will be in my heart. Thanks Mrs. TT and thanks for the great KSR love blog.

  13. ky yaya

    I love this team. They seemed to have more fun than most teams that play. I agree w everything posted by other ppl . We are a tough crowd.
    For me, this isn’t as bad as 2015. Not sure if it ever will that bad again. I love these guys and I hope they do great things in the NBA

  14. nicky

    Thanks Tyler…sucks to have to read this but it was probably even worse having to write it.

  15. I miss Kyle Macy

    Of course by any objective measure this season was a success. Each group is individual and falling 2 points short to a great team like UNC, clearly not getting calls is no shame. Like all of BBN I loved this group and like the Walll/cousins year that made it especially hard to take because we know we could have more. The biggest thing, however, is that we haven’t capitalized on our shots over the past 9 years. You only get so many. While I would never trade Calipari and the success we have had, one more title would make this way more bearable as I think it would at least be commensurate. We arguably had the best team 3 times and only one once. We got to the finals as not the best team but as the best team in the finals only to lose. As it stands, we basically haven’t capitalized so it makes losses like this very hard to deal with. Still love he Cats!

    1. Bobbum Man

      I understand what ur saying but at the same time…. that’s what makes the NCAA tournament the NCAA tournament. It’s an incredibly hard thing to win even if you do have the best team, it’s not a series where the best team usually prevails. Anything can happen on any given night and while it sure hurts sometimes it’s what makes it by far the best event in sports in my personal opinion.

    2. catsarerunnin

      In the long,successful history of UK basketball,the Cats have “only” won the title 8 times. All of the other seasons ended without a NCAA championship. In my 55 years the Cats have won 4 of those titles. I consider myself VERY fortunate to have been along for the ride for those four. There have been disappointments along the way but there isn’t a team or program that’s going to win a title every year or every other year. There will never be another UCLA style run unless you count UConn in women’s basketball. And what Geno has done there is incredible. I’m not a huge fan of OAD but I have immensely enjoyed the amazing talent Cal has brought here. He gets these players to play hard and they also become brothers. Compare the emotions between Lonzo Ball and De’Aaron Fox after the loss by their teams. There is no comparison. That’s because of Cal. He gets them to buy into the whole experience of playing college basketball and playing for the best program in the sport. And when they move on to the NBA,they NEVER forget their time here. Things like that are just as important to me as a fan as winning titles. It’s about being a part of BBN. And I LOVE it!

  16. RWE

    Thank you for another great article, Tyler. This loss hurts (and I’m not watching that locker room footage – no matter how many times KSR serves it up), but they all do when you care like we do about this thing that most people don’t even know about. The outcome of any random sporting event shouldn’t be of any importance, but growing up in Kentucky (plus my family moved to Louisville just in time to have to watch them not suck at basketball), we may know better, but we just can’t help ourselves. I told myself when I finished watching the last game of this season that I would avoid all mentions of college basketball for at least a month, but it turns out that I’m into shared suffering.
    I’m pulling for South Carolina, but can’t watch it – If Kentucky’s out, so am I. Mainly because in my 40+ years of being a fan, I’ve seen us go from the greatest of highs, to the lowest of lows (in college basketball terms, of course) and this thing just binds us together in a way that is difficult to explain to the rest of the world without them wanting you to schedule an MRI or (the even more ironic) CAT scan. I settled my family out of state at the end of my military career, but thanks again for your work, and I look forward to more articles from you that help me feel like less of an alien when I try to explain why the old guy is in a legitimate mourning period when the basketball season ends.

  17. WatchutalkinboutWillis

    The loss hurts way less than knowing we won’t see them all together again. I loved watching this team together.
    Every year is a new adventure for UK now in Cal era…it is a blessing and a curse. Next year is going to have several fun players to watch and depending on who stays/goes it might be one of the most fun to watch.