By LARRY VAUGHT
ARLINGTON — As Julius Randle rode in a golf cart on the way to postgame interviews with teammate James Young, he buried his heads in his hands as the tears flowed down his cheeks. At the same time, members of the Kentucky pep band waiting in the AT&T Stadium hallway gave him a huge ovations.
Kentucky may have lost the national championship game 60-54 to Connecticut Monday night, but the Wildcats won a spot in the their fans’ hearts with their gritty play in March that turned a disappointing season into a near miraculous season.
The Wildcats were a No. 8 seed and given no chance to reach the Final Four when March Madness started. But after falling behind 30-15 in the first half — the fifth straight game they were behind by nine or more points — they came roaring back and actually had chances to take the lead in the second half. But missed 11 of 24 free throws, shooting only 39 percent from the field and giving up 17 points off 13 turnovers was just too much to overcome.
“I can’t believe what these guys got done together. Talking about a bunch of young kids that just went out there and believed and believed in each other and just kept fighting,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. “I needed to do a better job for these kids today, because they needed more help in this.
“You could tell early on they were feeling the game. One of the things we tried some stuff, pick‑and‑roll, obviously it didn’t work. We had to play zone. Tried to get their sweat to dry a little bit, make them less aggressive and it worked and these guys performed. They came back, We tried doing different things, but we didn’t have enough answers for these guys to finish that team. Their guard play was outstanding. But again we had our chances and that’s all you can ask of your basketball team.”
He’s right and that’s why he told his team he was proud of them and to hold their heads high despite the loss.
“We know he meant that and eventually this will be okay, but it hurts right now,” point guard Andrew Harrison, who had eight points, five assists, five rebound, three steals and one blocked shot — he also had four turnovers — said in a much softer voice than normal.
“We had a great run. Nothing went wrong tonight. We could have got blown out, but we came back. We are a team full of competitors, but they just made plays and beat us,” freshman center Dakari Johnson said.
Connecticut did make the big plays this time that Kentucky had in wins over Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin. When Aaron Harrison had a chance to hit a key 3-pointer in this game, he missed. When Julius Randle drove inside late needing a basket, it came out. When Kentucky desperately needed a defensive rebound with about two minutes to play, it went to UConn.
Kentucky got just two field goals in the final six minutes after cutting the deficit to 51-49 — a big reason the Cats scored a season-low 54 points.
“We always think we are coming back,” Randle, who had 10 points, six rebounds and four assists against UConn’s sagging defense, said. “This time we just didn’t quite get it done.”
“We just kept our heads up and just kept fighting for each other. And we had a couple chances that we had to bring it back and we just kept fighting,” Young said as he sat at his locker with tears running down his cheeks. “This hurts. We’ll get over it, but it hurts.”
Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart hopes fans will remember the remarkable March journey, and not just the ending. He expects a bit crowd at this afternoon’s welcome home celebration in Rupp Arena for a team that started five teenagers and learned how to play as a team as the season went on.
“I am awful proud of them,” Barnhart said. “I don’t know if you could have four more memorable back-to-back games than we did. Those were four pretty spectacular games and fun to watch. It was really good stuff.
“I probably didn’t see this run coming. Not many probably did. These kids had a lot of talent. People questioned their character and heart. The kids responded the right way with a remarkable run. Don’t lose sight of how special that was because of this 60-54 score. We just came up seven point shorts, but it was still a remarkable run.”
It was and give Kentucky credit for making no excuses. No complaints about officiating. No complaints about Willie Cauley-Stein being out with an injury. No complaints about missed shots.
“They played a great game. They hit big shots. Just take your hat off to them. They played better than we did,” sophomore Alex Poythress said.
Calipari had to plead, push and pull this team much of the season. He said he never lost faith in his team, but he often admitted it had not been an easy year and that he had made as many mistakes as his players. But it was obvious, even in this difficult moment, he was proud of what his team did.
“These kids really fought and tried and what they accomplished, I told them, this was the best group I’ve ever coached as far as really being coachable and wanting to learn. I’ve never coached a team this young. Never. Hope I don’t ever again,” Calipari said.
Then he even showed he still had his sense of humor.
“I think all these kids are coming back, so we should be good,” Calipari said.
That’s not going to happen with the NBA big bucks waiting, but it shows that Calipari truly had enjoyed this run.
“We’ve all had so much fun the last month,” Johnson said. “You hate to see it end this way, but what a month it has been. I’ll never forget it.”