CRAWFORD | Kentucky loses 21-point lead, leaves Calipari searching after loss to Tennessee
Kentucky lost a 21-point first-half lead, and the game, as Tennessee stormed back to shock the Wildcats 84-77 in Knoxville Tuesday night.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Fourteen minutes into Tuesday night’s game at Tennessee, the University of Kentucky basketball team started acting like a guy who had just won $500 on a scratch-off ticket and decided to take the rest of the day off.
The Wildcats blew out to a 34-13 lead on Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena. It was this bad. I’m going to admit it. I started sneaking glances at cable news to see some of the analysis of the Iowa caucuses.
I’m not proud of it. I’m getting help.
The problem for Kentucky was this — and I’m serious. Sometimes, the worst thing that can happen to a young team is to get a big lead.
I’ve seen it. A team jumps all over an opponent, and they start to cruise, and they might take a shot that they otherwise wouldn’t, or take a possession off on defense, and all of a sudden, they learn a basic basketball lesson.
You can’t just turn it off and back on. Once you have momentum, you have to cling to it for dear life.
Kentucky had it, then turned it loose. After going up 21, the lead was down to 11 within 2 1/2 minutes. By halftime, it was only six. Six minutes into the second half, Kentucky surrendered the lead. Nine minutes in, it gave up the lead for good, as Tennessee went on to shock the Wildcats 84-77.
To put on my sports expert analyst hat for a moment — this wasn’t good.
Tennessee, which came into the game barely in the Top 100 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings and No. 124 in the RPI, has no business beating Kentucky, even if it had beaten a good Florida team in Knoxville, given Texas A&M all it could handle and beaten South Carolina at home.
Kentucky led by 21. That’s when you play smart offense, make sure you rebound, and get out of Knoxville without the sound of “Rocky Top” ringing in your ears all the way home. And getting that 21-point lead in Knoxville was a good thing. Tennessee had been playing well there. It's not an easy thing to do. Credit Tennessee for not giving in. And blame Kentucky for not pressing on.
“They make a mini-run and you’re acting like it’s not that big a deal, so now you’re jacking up fade-aways and breaking down on defense and all of a sudden it’s 6-8 at halftime,” Calipari told Tom Leach on his postgame radio program by IMG Sports. “Now, it’s anybody’s ballgame. We have a lot of guys, the toughness of the game, the tough rebound, throw it to the post, can’t get it to the basket. Toughness, they did, we didn’t. They played tougher than we did.”
Foul trouble hurt the Wildcats. After a fast start, Alex Poythress picked up two fouls nine minutes into the first half and headed to the bench. Five Kentucky players, Poythress, Marcus Lee, Skal Labissiere and Derek Willis, along with Isaiah Briscoe, its best-rebounding guard, had two fouls at halftime.
Kentucky got next to nothing from its interior players aside from Poythress. Lee and Labissiere combined for five rebounds in the game. That’s three fewer than Briscoe had by himself. Without Poythress, Kentucky is short on options for throwing it into the post. That makes them easier to defend.
Point guard Tyler Ulis scored 20 points despite going only 3 of 10 from the field. Jamal Murray had 21 points, but needed 20 shots to get them, going 7-20 from the field. But he had some major defensive breakdowns. He lost his man an an underneath inbounds play late to give up a layup. He didn’t sprint to the three-point line on a missed three and gave up an offensive rebound late.
Calipari keeps urging his team to make “winning plays.” Soon, my guess is, he’ll start looking for a new message. That one hasn’t resonated. The Wildcats had played four outstanding games in a row. A clunker at Tennessee isn’t surprising.
But Kentucky didn’t come out in this game flat. It came out sharp, then flat got outplayed for 26 minutes, a stretch in which Tennessee outscored the Wildcats 71-43.
Losing at Tennessee? That’s not the end of the world. But you don’t get outscored like that.
Where does Kentucky go from here? What does this loss mean?
You’re not going to lure me into that. If you’ve watched college basketball this season, you know that there are a lot of head-scratching losses out there. You go home, watch your film, go back to practice and move on.
We’ve seen it before, even with Kentucky teams. You can’t write the final chapter in February.
But the dogged defense of the past several games wasn’t there tonight, and Calipari needs it back with Florida visiting Rupp Arena on Saturday.
“It was more how we guarded,” Calipari told Leach. “You know, you have them, now just bury them. We don’t have those kind of guys. It’s showtime. And that’s what I’ve got to teach. That’s where I am right now. I’ve got to show them on the tape, get them to accept what they’re doing. The first thing is you’ve got to accept. It’s the coach, it’s this, it’s the officials. No. Not with a 21-point lead. None of that. This becomes, we don’t understand winning plays. We’re just playing basketball.”
One thing Kentucky is in jeopardy of losing — a track to the Louisville regional. A trip to the Sweet 16 with two presumptive home games in Louisville to reach the Final Four seemed a pretty certain road for this Kentucky team at the beginning of the season. But if the Wildcats aren’t a No. 1 or 2 seed, it’s tough to the see the Selection Committee rewarding them — or penalizing other teams — by sending them to the KFC Yum! Center.
The Wildcats have some opportunities remaining. They play Florida twice. They’re at Texas A&M and at South Carolina. Other teams are going to lose. They’re not a top three seed, and a four might take a pretty impressive finish, but they can work their way up. You just don't know where the rest of college basketball is going to be come March.
But the sense of urgency needs to begin before the Wildcats get home from Knoxville.
“We’ve got to do some soul searching, individuals and as a staff,” Calipari told reporters after the game. “We’ve got to keep looking at ways we can help this team get better and demand more and more winning plays. But we are what we are right now.”
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