After one final defeat, a Kentucky locker room reflects. ‘These guys are my brothers.’
Once the final buzzer had sounded on Kentucky’s season, the Wildcats made their way through the postgame handshake line, turned around and exited the court. They walked through the tunnel and under a scoreboard that displayed the final tally: Kansas State 75, Kentucky 69.
A season that started with seemingly realistic national championship hopes was ultimately filled with just about as many ups and downs as can be crammed into a 34-game schedule. By the end, UK’s run was finished in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, four games and two trips short of where the Wildcats expected it to when the season began.
The No. 4 team in the preseason AP Top 25 went through a little bit of everything before walking off the court Sunday evening. The Cats were at one time — and not that long ago — on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, only to rally their way back into the March Madness picture over the final weeks of the regular season.
There were big wins on the road against Arkansas and Tennessee — two teams that will still be playing when the tournament resumes later this week. There were head-scratching losses to teams like South Carolina and Georgia, bottom-dwellers in the Southeastern Conference.
Kentucky’s final record this season is a mediocre mark by the high standards that accompany the program’s prestige. UK finished with 22 wins and 12 losses, but those numbers don’t come close to describing the roller-coaster ride these Cats have been on over the past few months.
For this team, Sunday’s final game was just as maddening as many that came before it.
Reigning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe turned in another monster performance: 25 points and 18 rebounds, while going 9-for-11 from the free-throw line.
Freshman guard Cason Wallace played through pain and hit big shot after big shot, ending up with 21 points, nine rebounds and four assists in what was likely his final college game before heading off to the NBA Draft.
Fellow freshman Chris Livingston, who embraced being a “star in his role” after coming to Kentucky as one of the most touted recruits in the country, made huge plays on both ends of the court and finished with 11 points and seven rebounds in 38 minutes.
But, in the end, these Cats were left talking about a play here or there that could have been the difference in going home or going to Madison Square Garden to play for a spot in the Final Four.
In the locker room after the game, Kentucky’s players lamented their turnovers. The Cats had 11 in the first half alone, and Tshiebwe and Wallace had five each for the game. They looked back on defensive breakdowns and missed shots, wondering what might have been if things had gone a different way.
Antonio Reeves, the transfer guard who emerged as Kentucky’s offensive catalyst as the season progressed, had about as bad of an afternoon as one could imagine. Reeves, who was 5-for-9 from three-point range two days earlier in a win over Providence, came into the game shooting 41.4 percent from deep.
He missed the first 14 shots he took Sunday afternoon. Nine of those were three-pointers.
“I always believe in myself,” he said afterward. “I thought I was gonna hit one, that one was going in. But it wasn’t that type of day for me.”
With eight seconds left on the clock, he let fly one last time. And like some sort of sick joke from the basketball gods, that one dropped. But Kansas State still led 73-69. The game was already over.
And that was a perfect summation of Kentucky’s season.
With this team, something always seemed to go wrong, no matter how they tried.
Amid Reeves’ struggles Sunday, coaches and teammates were telling him to keep shooting. They knew that for this Kentucky team to keep going, they’d almost certainly need some offense from the player who had emerged as their star shooter.
“Just wasn’t that day for him, and it wasn’t his fault,” John Calipari said. “We had other guys not make any shots either.”
Kentucky shot just 29.4 percent from the floor in the first half, yet the Cats still led for a majority of the opening 20 minutes. They fell into a five-point hole out of halftime and roared back with a 13-0 run. But instead of putting K-State away, the struggles continued. Like they had all season.
When little-used reserve Lance Ware threw down a dunk to put Kentucky up 60-56 with less than four minutes left, the mostly-blue crowd in the Greensboro Coliseum erupted, sensing that the Sweet 16 would be the next stop on this journey. Instead, Kansas State, which was 2-for-17 on three-pointers up until then — and had missed its first 13 threes to start the game — made three of them in the game’s closing minutes. The last of those — off an offensive rebound — made it a 67-62 game with 1:23 left. It was never a one-possession contest again.
So, the eighth straight Kentucky basketball season ended without a trip to the Final Four, and the fourth consecutive campaign was finished without a trip to the tournament’s second week.
UK did win its first March Madness game in four years, but that won’t be enough to calm the considerable fan angst that has accompanied the past few seasons of the Calipari era.
“I have empathy. I understand what this program is about,” the UK coach said. “I think, again, that’s what makes it what it is, and that’s why I tell players: this isn’t for everybody, because the expectations are so high. …
“So, yeah, I understand it. But, you know, my concern is these kids.”
Calipari’s kids had to do a lot of growing up this season. And they did. Beyond the talk of the miscues that marred their final game together, there was talk of togetherness, in general. In the postgame locker room, through watery eyes and long sighs, this group of Wildcats reflected on the path that had led them to this destination.
“I’ll always remember this group, because we fight,” Tshiebwe said. “When we (started) this year, we thought, like, ‘We’re going to have so much fun. We’re going to beat everybody.’ But it did not turn out the way we were thinking. It turned out to be something tough. But I thank all my teammates for fighting with me, and we always stayed together.”
It’s more likely than not that Sunday was the final time Tshiebwe will wear a Kentucky uniform.
Senior guard CJ Fredrick battled a series of injuries over three years at Iowa, transferred to Kentucky two summers ago and was sidelined again for all of last season. This was supposed to be the first healthy year of his college career, but a freak injury to his shooting hand in December and a freakier injury that resulted in two cracked ribs last month put a stop to that.
Fredrick, who turns 24 years old in July, has more college eligibility remaining. But he’s not sure he’ll take it.
“That’s why the emotions kind of hit me, really hard,” he said Sunday evening. “Because I don’t know. This could be my last game playing college basketball. And you just look back at five years, and all of the relationships I’ve had. And the experiences I’ve had. I wouldn’t change anything, honestly. All of the injuries, everything — I wouldn’t change it. It’s made me a better person. It’s made me a better man. … I do have more years, but I have no idea what I’m going to do right now. So if it was the last time, that’s why these emotions are just pouring out of me right now. Because I gave it everything I had.”
And he said there’s no group of guys he’d have rather shared this season with, even with all of the low points they endured.
“Everybody went through something this season that they’ve had to overcome,” Fredrick said. “And every single person overcame it. That’s what the great thing of this place is — it challenges you. And it’s not an easy place to be at. And every single person was able to overcome things. And regardless of the outcome, that’s something you take with you in life. How you respond to adversity. And how you handle things that put you in a dark, dark spot.”
Perhaps no one was in a darker spot along the way than senior forward Jacob Toppin, who came to Kentucky three years ago as “a child” — his words — and grew into a leader. There were a lot of bumps along the way. And he spoke candidly about the mental struggles he faced off the court earlier this season. His own personal journey became a rallying point for this team.
It didn’t end the way any of them wanted. But, though there was little solace in it Sunday, they all learned something along the way.
“This team is like no other. We’ve been through so many things,” Toppin said. “We’ve been through a lot. We’ve made a lot of memories that I’ll never forget. But, most importantly, we’ve built relationships that will last a lifetime. So I’m proud of this group. I’m proud of what everyone’s become, because of what we’ve been through, as a team and individually.
“These guys are my brothers. And I won’t ever forget them.”
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