By LARRY VAUGHT
ARLINGTON — From the time he found that the national championship game would be played in his hometown of Dallas in 2014, Julius Randle dreamed of playing in the game.
Monday night he got his chance — and his dream game didn’t go like he planned as UK lost 60-54 to Connecticut.
“We just came up short. Their guard play and shot making was ridiculous. There are things we could have did, but we gave our all. I am not regretting anything,” said Randle.
He had 10 points, six rebounds, four assists and one block. He finished the season with 24 double-doubles and 417 rebounds, a freshman record and two more than Anthony Davis had in 2012. However, he took just seven shots and seemed that either his ankle he tweaked in Saturday’s win over Wisconsin might have been bothering him, especially early in the game, or that he might have not been 100 percent physically.
“I was fine,” Randle said.
Calipari said Randle was tired two minutes into the game “because he’s a freshman and he was anxious.” Calipari also indicated nothing else was wrong with his leading scorer and rebounder.
“That was the national championship in front of 17 zillion people and he ran up and down the court three times and he got winded. It’s normal. He got winded a few other times in the game. olks, these kids did stuff, I think Aaron (Harrison) was a little winded. Same idea. I was trying to get them to focus on the court, on the lines,” Calipari said. “But let me ask you, if were you 18 and you had to be in that kind of environment, and everybody you looked at was 18, how would you do? Oh, you would make every free throw and dunk every ball, especially with (Ryan) Boatright and (Shabazz) Napier up under you, or somebody trying to block it, or all of a sudden the thing swings and we may lose. All of a sudden you’re 18 and you got to react to that.”
Randle also said he took only seven shots because of UConn’s defense.
“My shots didn’t matter. When I was penetrating, guys were open on the wing and that’s my job to get them shots if they suck in. So I don’t care about shots,” Randle said. “They collapsed on me. I just tried to create for other people. There wasn’t much one on one or anything. The defense just collapsed on me. I just tried to create for others. I made the right plays, or tried to.”
That included a shot he took in the lane with UK down 58-52 and under three minutes to play that went in and came out.
“I thought it was in,” Randle said.
Maybe the NCAA Tournament had been “a grind” as he indicated Sunday and wore him down, but he played the second half like it was his last game — and likely it was at UK as he’ll probably put his name into the NBA Draft where he’s projected as a top 10 pick. He said he had no idea when he would decide about that, but he’s projected to go so high it would be hard for him to come back to UK.
He was a huge part of Kentucky’s improbable run to the national title game after UK lost nine regular-season games and dropped out of the national rankings.
“The biggest thing is that this is what we expected of each other. No matter how hard things got, the belief stayed the same,” Randle said. “Whether people expected us to be here or not didn’t matter because we expected to be here. What we have done is special to us. Only we know all the hours and work we put in. We did this for each other, not to prove anybody wrong. You are always going to have people rooting against you, but proving them wrong and getting here did make that sweet.”
A year ago Randle wasn’t afraid of the 40-0 talk for this team. He didn’t say UK would go 40-0, but he never said he thought that was an unfair expectation.
“When I committed here I was aware of the expectations that the whole state has. This is Kentucky basketball. It did get a little crazy at times. The expectations are hard to fulfill. We never fed into any of that. We just got better each day,” he said. “We finally figured out that we had to get better defensively. We started trusting each other on offense and just playing with more energy. Our roles got more simplified. We just came together as a team when it mattered the most.
“We had no college experience. It wasn’t like effort or our attitudes or how we approached games was not there, we just had to figure it out and luckily it clicked. Our thing was never about proving people wrong. We just wanted to have fun and get better each game. In the process, we proved a lot of people wrong. I didn’t prove anything to you guys, but I proved a lot to myself. No matter how tough things get, there is always light at the end of the tunnel that you can fight through.”
Even without a championship, Randle — who was the SEC Newcomer of the Year and member of several All-American teams — sad he has plenty to remember from this 29-11 season.
“This group of guys are special. We have been through a lot this season. How we kept fighting and we were able to make this run just says a lot about the guys. I just hate that it ended like this,” Randle said. “I am just extremely proud of everybody and how they fought this whole postseason and how we fought through everything. It’s just hard to come up one game short.”