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John Clay: Wildcats run out of magic

By John Clay Lexington Herald-Leader (MCT) • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:18 PM

ARLINGTON, Texas — In the end, there just wasn’t quite enough magic.

The clock struck midnight on Kentucky’s Cinderella tournament, but not its turnaround story.

After three wondrous weeks of fantastic finishes, Kentucky came up short in the national championship game, falling 60-54 to the Connecticut Huskies in the finals of the NCAA Tournament at AT&T Stadium.

There was not enough magic at the free-throw line. Kentucky missed 11 of its 24 shots from the foul line, while Connecticut was a perfect 10-for-10. 

There was not enough magic from the three-point line. The Cats were just 5-for-16 from beyond the arc.

There were no Aaron Harrison cold-blooded treys on this night, the UK freshman missing four of his five three-point attempts.

And there will be no banner hanging in Rupp Arena. The team that seemed to have nine lives couldn’t bring home No. 9.

No shame in that. No shame at all.

This young Kentucky team that seemed so lost in late February and early March, that lost nine regular-season games, that couldn’t beat Florida, that lost at South Carolina, put together one of the greatest post-season turnarounds in the history of the program.

After nearly winning the SEC Tournament, it found a way to beat previously unbeaten and No. 1 seed Wichita State. It knocked off red-hot Louisville. It got a game-winning three from Aaron Harrison to beat Michigan. It got another three from Harrison to nip Wisconsin on Saturday in an epic national semifinal.

In fact, when the Cats trailed Connecticut 35-31 inside Jerry’s World on this Monday night, John Calipari’s team seemed to have the Huskies right where they wanted them.

It didn’t turn out that way. Credit Shabazz Napier, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, who scored 22 points and dished six assists. Credit his backcourt mate, Ryan Boatright, who added 14 points and four assists.

But credit the Connecticut front line, too. All year long Kentucky had lived off the glass, battering opponents on the offensive boards. Not this night. Connecticut outrebounded the Cats 34-33. Kentucky got 10 offensive rebounds, but Connecticut got 26 defensive boards.

“They got every 50-50 ball,” said Calipari. “They had more energy.”

And a facet that hurt this team from time to time this season reared its ugly head at the worst time. James Young was 8-for-9 from the foul line. The rest of the Cats were 5-for-15. 

“They’re not machines,” said Calipari. “They’re kids.”

Afterward, in the postgame news conference, the head coach who felt the sting of his second national title loss in seven seasons, beat himself up a bit.

“I didn’t do enough for these kids tonight,” Calipari said. “I wish I could have come up with a couple of more answers for them.”

He was wrong, of course. Unnecessary. Taking one for the team. It was Calipari that somehow got his ridiculously young team to make a course correction after that 19-point loss at Florida and transformed a shaky team starting five freshmen to somehow play with another level of confidence and maturity.

He also did it for a large part of this NCAA Tournament without Willie Cauley-Stein, the rim-protector who injured his ankle after playing just four minutes in the Louisville game.

“This group of guys is special,” said Julius Randle, one of those freshmen. “We fought through so much.”

They fought in this tournament every minute of every game. 

“I can’t even tell you, even in that loss, how proud I am,” Calipari said. “I can’t believe what these kids got done together.”

Through this tournament run, with five wins by a scant 18 points, did Calipari ever think in the back of his mind that it had to end sometime, that a team that didn’t win six straight games all year might not have enough in the tank to win six straight on college basketball’s biggest stage?

“No,” Calipari said. “Until the horn blows, I think we’re winning this game. To get my team to believe that, I have to believe that. When it’s close, we’re going to make enough plays. And if we run out of time, we go on to the next one.”

There’s not another game, not this year.

And even if there wasn’t a magical ending, it was a magical run.


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