With the game on the line, the youngest team in America fell victim to a poor decision by the guy who has, by far, the most experience on the roster: the head coach.
And that, he said, was a big reason Kentucky lost to Tennessee in Rupp Arena, 61-59 Tuesday night.
“I should’ve called a timeout,” John Calipari said. “I don't ever like to in those situations, but this is a different team. This team is too young. They're just too young to know what's there and if they get in trouble, just call a timeout.”
Turns out, they did get in trouble but failed to call that timeout, and they paid the ultimate price.
With 26 seconds left, Tennessee had just taken a 59-58 lead, an ugly reversal of a game that saw Kentucky nursing a 55-52 advantage with only 2:53 left to play. But the Volunteers, doing what they do, forced the youngsters into mistakes on both ends of the floor and now they were just moments from pulling off the upset in Rupp Arena.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had the ball. For the game’s first 30 minutes, he had found his usual path to the rim littered with orange jerseys. Then, with 10 minutes left, he suddenly began to slither to the basket with his normal regularity, scoring three times – the only UK field goals for the next six and a half minutes.
And now, game on the line, he worked the ball up the court. Everyone in downtown Lexington and beyond, including Tennessee, had a pretty good idea of what he was about to attempt.
Understand, the view from behind this keyboard was fine. The thought here was the same as the one Calipari ordinarily employs: Calling timeout gives the other team (especially a Tennessee team that might be the best defensive ballclub in the conference) a chance to set up its attack.
Calipari said he should have called time with about 12 seconds left, although that assumed his team would have worked its way to a good look at the bucket in that amount of time, something that rarely happened on this night. Still, he said, his logic was flawed.
“Usually they're going to miss -- the defense is going to panic,” he said. “It's a one-point game. What are they saying? Don't (foul). And if he could get by somebody he was going to get a layup, because they weren't going to foul him. That's why I usually don't.”
SGA headed for the paint, which is where he ordinarily does good work. But once again he ran into a Big Orange wall, preventing him from shooting or passing, or even maintaining possession, for that matter.
Gigeous-Alexander turned it over, Admiral Schofield running away for a wide open dunk and a three-point lead with just four seconds left.
And when Tennessee, playing the odds, fouled Gilgeous-Alexander with four seconds left, preventing him from getting off a try for three, all the Wildcats could do was settle for the first free throw and frantically try to rebound the intentional miss on the second. Vols rebound. Ball game.
The Rupp Arena crowd which, in the closing minutes, finally had something to stand and cheer about, quietly filed out, trying once again to decipher this team.
Give us a call if you ever do.
None of us, including Calipari, has ever witnessed a UK squad so bereft of experience. Nothing about this team has been consistent, except for its inconsistency.
There’s little flow to the offense, indicating that most (if not all) of the players are struggling to understand how to play their roles every night.
Kevin Knox, another game removed from his explosion at West Virginia, put up only 10 points. The Hustle Twins, Jarred Vanderbilt and Wenyen Gabriel, had just eight points and two rebounds between them in a total of 34 minutes.
On offense, Hamidou Diallo was a ghost – in 13 minutes, he had the same amount of points, rebounds and assists that you and I did.
Give Tennessee much of the credit for gumming up a lot of Kentucky’s offensive work. Blame poor execution for the rest.
Defensive effort is there, which is not a surprise. Since he first unpacked his bags in Lexington, Calipari has preached the virtues of defense and allowed as how that is the first thing he teaches. Defense was not the issue against Tennessee.
The Volunteers shot just 42 percent, including only 5-of-21 from beyond the arc.
If you had known those numbers going into Tuesday night’s game, and that Tennessee would score only 61 points, would you have predicted a Kentucky victory?
See, that’s just it. Maybe. Maybe not.
You just don’t know with this team because, well, you just don’t know this team. And at times – far too often, it seems - they really don’t know themselves.
And when their coach admits that it was he who let them down in the game’s final seconds, well, it’s awfully tough for guys who might not be old enough to shave, to figure out how to win.
“That game was in my hands to do something with and I dropped the ball,” Calipari said. “These kids did what they were supposed to do.”
And the coach, according to the coach, did not.