By LARRY VAUGHT
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Despite a frantic comeback that almost worked, there’s no easy way to explain Kentucky’s 72-67 loss to lowly South Carolina here Saturday.
This was a game the Cats desperately needed to win after Thursday’s home loss to overtime — and came out acting like the game meant nothing. The Cats were sluggish — like they have been to start games way too often all season — and unorganized. They lacked the passion of the home team and made mental mistakes, missed shots and got outhustled.
Maybe it was just more than Kentucky coach John Calipari could take because midway of the second half, he got his second technical foul and was ejected. Even assistant coach Orlando Antigua had been slapped with a technical before that.
After the Calipari technical and free throws, UK was down 55-39 with 10 minutes, 25 seconds left to a team that had three SEC wins. But then the unexpected happen. With assistant John Robic calling the shots, UK came to life and sliced the lead to 68-67 and had the ball back down 70-67 with 20 seconds left. However, Alex Poythress — who was 6-for-20 from 3-point range this season — missed an open 3 and that sealed the loss that no UK coach, player or fan could have seen coming.
“I told him to shoot that thing. He was wide open. It was on line,” Robic said. “We had to get off a good shot. It was a good look. I know he is not a prolific 3-point shooter, but I had confidence in him.”
Kentucky was 14-for-52 from the field — 5-for-29 in the first half — and went almost 13 minutes once without a made field goal despite having a team full of projected NBA draft picks.
The Wildcats lost despite a 46-28 edge on the boards — of course, UK gave up a huge offensive rebound to South Carolina late as it has seemed to do in every loss this year — and going 33-for-42 at the foul line.
What did Calipari think?
Well, we don’t know because he sent Robic to the media room.
“Our guys played great. They fought and didn’t give up. We didn’t start the way we wanted to,” Robic said. “They showed some toughness in the end. It is a hurting locker room right now.”
It should be. A team that openly talked of going 40-0 and opened the season No. 1 is now dropping in the NCAA seedings and has eight losses.
So what has happened? According to Aaron Harrison (4-for-16 from the field, no assists) and James Young (4-for-12, five turnovers), nothing.
“It’s frustrating to lose, but we know what we can do. It is going to be a great story,” Aaron Harrison said.
“We know what we can do. We talk about it. Even after the game we know what we can do and we can make a run and it will be a great story for everyone to talk about,” Harrison said. “It was a lot about pride (at the end). We couldn’t go out like that. We did all we could do.”
For the last 10 minutes, yes. For the first 30 minutes, no.
Still, Young said UK can “definitely” make a run.
“We didn’t come this far … we are going to keep playing and make a great run,” Young said. “Just let this game go and keep moving forward. Try to make a big run in the end.”
One could argue that the Cats seemed to relax and play harder and better after Calipari, who was on most of his players most of the game, left the court. Robic strongly disagreed.
“I thought we played hard. I didn’t think we made shots,” Robic said when asked why UK’s energy picked up the last 10 minutes. “These kids care. It hurts not to win. I think they saw the ball go in a couple of times and and that brought confidence. They got stops on defense and that also brought confidence. I appreciate them playing hard. The bench was great. We just fell a little bit short.”
Yet Young readily admitted what seemed obvious — UK’s energy went up the final 10 minutes. Maybe it was Calipari’s ejection/fight that inspired them. Or maybe not.
“I think it was energy,” Young said. “We did not come out with a lot of energy. We had more energy in the second half.”
South Carolina coach Frank Martin praised his team — and Kentucky.
“I am tired of people saying our league is bad. Kentucky is a real good basketball team,” Martin said. “Our man-to-man defense was real good in the first half. But Kentucky was just attacking us on the glass and we had to go zone. We were active. We threw the first punch. When they punched us back, we didn’t retreat.”
Which has become a way too familiar thing for this highly touted UK team that is nowhere close to fulfilling the expectations everyone had for this team.