Where do you even start with a game like this? Coming in, we know this game would be tough, but I don’t think anyone anticipated that. In a way, this game felt like a microcosm of the entire season. North Carolina controlled the first half, but just when it looked like it could get out of hand, Kentucky rallied, making a gutsy comeback to take the lead with 6:41 left thanks to the unlikeliest of heroes. Isaac Humphries, who, two weeks ago, was questioning his future at Kentucky, hit the free throw to put the Cats ahead, and kept firing to push the lead to five with five minutes left. Unfortunately, for every big shot Kentucky made, North Carolina responded. The Tar Heels were up seven with a minute left, and it looked like Kentucky’s fate was sealed, but the Cats didn’t give up thanks to huge threes from De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Monk, who struggled most of the game, did as Monk does and drained a three to tie the score with ten seconds left, but North Carolina’s Luke Maye hit a jumper seven seconds later to seal the win. From there, the game, and Kentucky’s season, was over.
The dramatic ending aside, you can see why Kentucky lost. It seemed like the entire team was in foul trouble from the start, a point Calipari hammered home in the postgame presser.
“You know, it’s amazing that we were in that game where they practically fouled out my team,” Cal said. “Amazing that we had a chance. So proud of how these guys fought. So proud of Isaac. Can you imagine his first real opportunity to do this was in this game, and he performed? Amazing.”
The fact that Isaac scored 12 is just the tip of the bizarre iceberg. With so many players in foul trouble in the first half, Dominique Hawkins stepped up and carried the load, scoring ten points before halftime to keep the Cats within striking distance. Malik Monk, who had 47 vs. North Carolina in Vegas in December, was out of sorts, finishing with only 12 points, six of those in the final minute. De’Aaron Fox, who had 39 points on Friday night, finished with 13 from 5-14 from the floor. Bam Adebayo had 13 points, five from the free throw line.
Novels could be written about the officiating and yes, this matchup should have taken place in the Final Four and not the Elite Eight, but instead of focusing on the negative, I’m going to remember how this team rallied. The outcome clearly wasn’t what we had all hoped, but a few months ago, could you have imagined this team making it this far? If you’re looking for some solace, remember how bad things were in the middle of the conference season. A tearful De’Aaron Fox said it best.
“We went through that stretch and we lost those games and everybody talked about how we didn’t care. This isn’t a locker room that looks like guys don’t care. I love my brothers, man.”
In the past two months and especially the last seven games, this team endeared itself to the BBN. It was a fast and furious courtship, but this group was well on its way to becoming one of the most beloved of the Calipari era for their resiliency, fearlessness, and swagger.
The next few days will be full of speculation about who’s going to the draft and who’s coming back, but it speaks to the character of this squad that none of the players asked — many of which are projected to go in the top ten of the draft — were focusing on that.
“I really don’t know right now,” Malik Monk said. “I haven’t talked to my mom, brother, or coach yet. We’ll talk about that later.”
“I’m not thinking about that right now,” Fox said, cutting off a reporter. “I love these guys. I’m not thinking about what’s next.”
Right now, the cruelest part of today’s loss may feel like Luke Maye’s dagger, but I have a feeling in the weeks and months to come, it will be the fact that Kentucky’s season ended just as fans were falling in love with this squad.