Kentucky had Kansas by the throat in the first half. With a 12-point lead and Rupp Arena in rare form, the Cats were poised to pull away. Then…
“The lead just zipped by us,” Dominique Hawkins said after the game. His senior counterpart, Derek Willis, felt quite the opposite as he slowly saw the game ripped from their grasp.
“You could kind of feel their energy going away. It felt like they were going to break away from us, and we just let ’em back in the game.” He added: “I feel like at times, we get up and you can kind of relax. Then you get really complacent. That’s when the other team comes back. It’s like you’re fighting an uphill battle and it’s a lot to deal with once you have the other team coming at you.”
Kentucky’s problems weren’t so much offensive (47% FG, 40.1% 3FG), they were defensive. They couldn’t get stops to extend the lead. Instead, they gave up straight-line drives and offensive rebounds (KU had 17 second-chance points).
Willis described the late miscues as a failure to make “winning plays.” Hawkins said, “At times we just, just don’t have enough to finish at the end.”
The seniors are confident they can make those plays by March.
“We just can’t have those kind of plays if we want to go far in March,” Willis said. “That’s what we look forward to. All of this is preparing us for the end of they year. We got a lot of things to fix and we’ll bounce back.”
The team still isn’t communicating well enough and they need to learn to trust one another, but the seniors been here before. As freshmen, they were in a similar spot. That season ended in the National Championship game.
“We probably didn’t think we had a shot to go for a National Championship, but Coach Cal told us to keep on competing and keep on fighting. We were doing the same thing on defense we’re not doing here: not communicating and getting beat on the dribble,” Hawkins said. “We’re going to have to get back to practice and sharpen it up.
“Anything is possible with a young team.”