Five things you need to know from No. 17 Kentucky’s frustrating 89-85 loss to Gonzaga

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Five things you need to know from No. 17 Kentucky’s 89-85 loss to Gonzaga in men’s NCAA basketball at Rupp Arena:

1. A different defensive deficiency. At various times this season, the problem killing Kentucky’s porous defense has been inability to stop straight-line drives or repeated failures against baseline out-of-bounds plays.

On Saturday, the biggest issue was a throwback to last season: difficulty against the high pick-and-roll.

Gonzaga killed the Cats down the stretch off high ball screens with the screener diving to the basket. When UK double-teamed the driver, he would slip the bal to the open Zags big man near the rim. If the UK defense rolled with the screener, the Bulldogs would reverse the ball and have an easy entry pass to big who was now posting up.

The result was the Gonzaga front line overpowered Kentucky at the rim. Before fouling out, the 6-foot-9, 240-pound Graham Ike had 23 points. Ben Gregg, a 6-10, 230-pound sophomore, went for 14 points. Braden Huff, an impressive 6-10, 242-pound freshman, had 12 points off the bench.

Operating off the wing, Anton Watson, a 6-8, 222-pound super-senior, also did good work in the lane and had 17 points.

It is kind of remarkable how much Kentucky struggles in so many aspects of man-to-man defense.

Gonzaga’s Anton Watson (22) celebrates scoring and drawing a foul against Kentucky during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.
Gonzaga’s Anton Watson (22) celebrates scoring and drawing a foul against Kentucky during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.

2. More late-game strategic second-guessing. John Calipari should probably prepare for several more days of statewide second-guessing.

After not fouling Florida with UK up three in the final seconds, giving up a tying trey and losing 94-91 in overtime last week, Calipari had two apparent decisions with the game hanging in the balance vs. Gonzaga that did not work out for Kentucky.

With the Wildcats down 86-84, Justin Edwards got the ball back for UK by tying up a driving Nolan Hickman to force a held ball with the possession arrow favoring the Cats with 13.9 seconds left.

After a Kentucky timeout, UK apparently was trying to get Adou Thiero free at the rim for an alley oop dunk. However, it appeared that the Cats missed an intended screen designed to free Thiero. As a result, Thiero didn’t get to the rim and Reed Sheppard’s pass intended for him was intercepted by Gonzaga’s Ben Gregg.

The next decision that didn’t turn out well for Kentucky came after Gonzaga’s Ben Gregg hit one of two free throws with 5.1 seconds left to put the Zags up three. With UK needing a trey to tie, Mark Few chose to have his team foul and Gonzaga’s Ryan Nembhard purposefully sent Antonio Reeves to the foul line with 4.1 seconds left.

When Reeves made his first free throw, Kentucky called timeout. After play resumed, Reeves intentionally missed the second free throw, but Gonzaga rebounded.

Let’s stipulate, there were no great options for Kentucky with Reeves having one free throw left and the Cats down two, but 4.1 seconds seemed a lot of time left for the miss-on-purpose strategy.

To me, there were more avenues open for UK to tie the game if Reeves hit the second foul shot. Down one point, UK might have forced a five-second call as Gonzaga sought to inbound the ball. Or maybe the Cats could have gotten a steal.

At worst, the likelihood was the Zags inbounded and UK quickly fouled. Even if Gonzaga cashed two foul shots, Kentucky would have likely been down three with around 3 seconds remaining.

3. A dubious distinction. With the loss, the 2023-24 Wildcats became the first UK team to lose three straight games at Rupp Arena.

The defeat to Gonzaga followed a 94-91 overtime loss to Florida and a 103-92 defeat to Tennessee last week at Rupp.

Before this season, the last UK team to lose three straight home games was Adolph Rupp’s 1966-67 Cats — who lost to Illinois (98-97 in OT), North Carolina (64-55) and Florida (78-75) in succession at Memorial Coliseum.

The Kentucky bench celebrates a score against Gonzaga during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.
The Kentucky bench celebrates a score against Gonzaga during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.

4. A “new blood” takes down a “blue blood.” UK’s loss dropped its all-time mark vs. Gonzaga to 1-2.

Against the three programs I have designated as the 21st century men’s college hoops “new bloods” — Connecticut, Gonzaga and Villanova — UK is now a combined 8-7.

My definition of a college hoops “new blood” is a program that does not have the deep tradition of the “blue bloods” — think Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina — but whose 21st century performance has been at an elite level.

Besides Gonzaga, Kentucky is 6-1 overall versus Villanova, but 1-0 this century.

UK is only 1-4 against Connecticut, with three NCAA Tournament losses to the Huskies in the 2000s.

5. Nolan Hickman finally makes it to Rupp Arena. Had his original plan gone through, Gonzaga guard Nolan Hickman would have, by now, played many games in Lexington. The Seattle product signed with Kentucky in its 2021 recruiting class but ultimately changed his mind and chose Gonzaga instead.

On Saturday, in his first game at what could have been his home court, the 6-foot-2, 183-pound junior had 17 points and five rebounds.

Of course, this year was the second time Hickman played against UK. In Gonzaga’s 88-72 win over Kentucky last season in Spokane, Hickman had four points, two assists and a steal in 28 minutes.

To save its season, Kentucky basketball needs to mimic one team

A cherished Kentucky basketball streak is looking safe in 2023-24

An ‘old school’ sensibility has allowed Marques Warrick to make NKU hoops history

He dethroned a ‘King.’ Travis Perry is the 2023 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year.

Top 10: Reed Sheppard edges Juli Fulks, Lamar Jackson for 2nd in Ky. Sports Figure voting

See the 92 people, 3 horses who received votes for 2023 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year

From Brad Cox to ZaKiyah Johnson, what Ky. Sports Figure voters said about finishers 11-25

At last, the drought is over. Kentucky is again producing high-level basketball talent.

Buckle up, Kentucky fans: SEC football as you have known it is gone in 2024

These three trends should worry Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops

‘I am so excited.’ Why a UK sports legend is coming back to Kentucky.