NASHVILLE -- Through it all, they persevered, coming back time after time. No matter the venue, or how tough the opponent, they did their best and in the end, gave it all they had for as long as they could.
Kentucky fans, that is. You thought I was talking about the Wildcats?
This bizarro-world UK basketball season crashed once again, this time, in the Southeastern Conference Tournament at Bridgestone Arena which, believe it or not, seemed just as adorned in blue as it was when John Wall and company played here in this event back in 2010.
That team made an incredible comeback against Mississippi State in the championship game. This team would never get a sniff of Sunday’s title contest, flopping against a Vanderbilt squad it already had beaten twice.
And to their everlasting credit, the Big Blue Nation did everything it could. Fans rose to their feet in full throat, their team down 13 in the second half, but making a run. And then Archie Goodwin made a break for the basket, finishing a fast break with a dunk that seemed to ram all of the frustrations of the evening through the rim. It was an 11 point game and there was a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel. The wall of sound was all too familiar.
But after a 30-second timeout, the Commodores resumed shredding the Kentucky defense, and the beat-down was on.
The Big Blue faithful could only suffer in silence as the black and gold-clad Commodore fans, outnumbered easily by 20-1, rolled out chants that were covered with thick layers of dust. “Over-rated!” and “N-I-T! N-I-T!” they jeered at the Wildcats. Truth be told, the 16-16 ‘Dores would love to play in the NIT themselves, having won six of their last seven. They can still make the NCAA tourney field by winning two more games, which is highly unlikely.
So, too, was a Kentucky folderoo – or so it seemed, after the victory over Florida. But the Cats came out and took a 6-5 lead on a layup by Goodwin, only to watch Vandy ease away to a slim lead over the next eight minutes.
It was still a two-point game at 18-16 VU with 6:22 remaining in the first period when the Commodores suddenly exploded, outscoring Kentucky 19-7 over the rest of the first half. It was 37-23 at intermission, with Willie Cauley-Stein sitting out the last seven minutes and Goodwin the last five, both with two fouls.
The Wildcats made that one run in the second half which Vandy fought off, thanks to the ‘Dores’ offensive execution and to the fact that Ryan Harrow picked the worst night to have his worst night. He was 2-of-15 from the field, most of them layups or floaters that tickled the rim and fell harmlessly away.
I was in the main interview room, watching the coaches and players speak from the podium while other reporters were in the UK locker room. They all agreed via Twitter that Harrow’s outpouring of sadness was as profound as they had seen from a Kentucky player in a long time.
“If we don’t make the tournament, I have to take responsibility,” he told Kyle Tucker of the Courier-Journal. Harrow sat in the corner of the locker room, still in his uniform, a towel draped over his head to hide his tears.
There could be more weeping (and some wailing) on the way if the Wildcats don’t make the NCAA tournament field, now a distinct possibility. If any selections committee members spent much time watching this game, they would have every right to question themselves as to why they should extend a bid to this Kentucky team, which at times doesn’t seem interested in what it’s doing.
The one thing they know they can reasonably count on is that the Big Blue Nation will follow (if they’re interested in moving blocks of tickets – which, they say, is not a factor in the selections committee war room). The Nation proved its loyalty, even to this maddeningly inconsistent team, Friday night in Nashville, overtaking the Music City once again despite the ever-present possibility that their favorite team could, as John Calipari later said it did, “lay an egg.”
A rotten egg, at that.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)