When you woke up Tuesday morning, the University of Tennessee’s basketball program had only four wins in its history in Rupp Arena.
When you went to bed Tuesday night, that number had climbed to five all-time wins after the Vols upset the Cats on “Please Stand Up During The Last Eight Minutes” Night.
It was a crushing defeat for the Wildcats, who have now lost four of six conference games, and were swept by Tennessee for the first time since 1999.
So, what in the world happened?
Well, for starters, Tennessee is a tough and smart basketball team. Rick Barnes has done an outstanding job with them this season, a season in which they were picked to finish 13th in the league. But with less than a month to go, they’re currently in second place and riding a very impressive six-game win streak. Job well done by Barnes and his team.
Now that we’ve given credit to the opponent, let’s skip to what everyone is talking about: how Kentucky completely folded in the final minute.
Kentucky had no business losing that game in the end. No business. Exactly zero business losing that game in the end. After clawing back to grab ahold of the lead with a little over three minutes to go, things were looking up for the Cats and the win seemed imminent. The Rupp Arena crowd was standing and bringing the noise, just as Cal had asked, and the momentum was all on Kentucky’s side. It was going so well when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander put his team up two with 90 seconds to go, and even better when Quade Green grabbed a Tennessee miss on the other end as the clock hit the one-minute mark.
But then things went way wrong. Gilgeous-Alexander turned the ball over to give Tennessee another opportunity, which they seized on a three-pointer of all things to steal the lead from UK’s hands. On Kentucky’s next possession, now down one and time ticking away, Gilgeous-Alexander turned it over again on the exact same play Kentucky screwed up the last trip down. Instead of setting up something to get the best look (if there is such thing as a best look), Nick Richards set a screen for Gilgeous-Alexander while everyone else stood around watching, only for Gilgeous-Alexander to drive into a crowded lane, again, where Tennessee was ready to swarm him.
The play call (or lack thereof) and execution were frustrating, but the fact John Calipari did not use a timeout in that situation is the story of the game. For a guy who talks so much about a young team who doesn’t know what they’re doing, he sure left them on an island out there, and he knows it.
“I should’ve called a timeout,” he said on his postgame radio show. “You know what? That’s on me. It’s not on these kids or what they did.”
“I dropped the ball today. This was on me. Don’t be mad at any of these kids,” he added.
It’s very noble of Calipari to accept full responsibility for the loss, as any good coach should, but the players deserve the majority of the blame. Kevin Knox did not play well; P.J. Washington did not play well; and Hamidou Diallo played his worst game of the year, which is why he saw only 13 minutes of action. Nick Richards actually played decent, but he made a very costly mistake at the end by not fouling as soon as Gilgeous-Alexander turned the ball over, yet another example of this team’s lack of situational awareness.
As a group, Kentucky fell shy of the 10-assist mark for the third straight game, while recording twice as many turnovers (15) as assists (7). The three-point shot wasn’t falling once again (3-for-14), and it was the seventh game this season with a scoring drought of five minutes or more. The Cats are 0-7 in those games and 17-0 in the others, when they don’t go five minutes without a bucket. Let’s face it: the offense is a real problem right now because the options are very limited.
So the loss sucked, but what’s next, you ask?
Kentucky goes to Texas A&M and then to Auburn for a brutal two-game road stretch. It’s important to steal one to steady the ship a little bit; otherwise they’ll come back home to play Alabama on a four-game losing skid and with a sub-500 league record. That’s not ideal. Of those two upcoming road tests, the next one, at A&M, is the most winnable of the two; the Auburn one is very unlikely.
Until then, take a deep breath because the sky hasn’t fallen yet, although it is getting pretty dark up there as March creeps closer.
The season will of course roll on, but there is no denying that blowing a two-point lead with 49 seconds to go and the ball in hand, to a program with four wins in Rupp Arena in its lifetime, is a tough pill to swallow.