It was an unforgettable finish to a most forgettable game. And it might turn out to be this team’s Bloomington.
Just as the 2012 national champions fed off the anger that rippled throughout the team after their sole regular-season loss at Indiana, so might the team playing into 2014 draw upon what happened in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on a Tuesday night that was drawing close to Wednesday morning.
Despite 10 first-half turnovers (which led to 14 Razorback points) and a bushel of missed free throws, the Wildcats clawed their way back into the game and drilled a pair of clutch, last-second three-pointers to give themselves a chance.
The first one, by Andrew Harrison, sent the game into overtime and helped vindicate the point guard, who finished the game with five turnovers. The triple was his first bucket of the night.
And because Harrison had drained his trey, the Cats and Hogs played an extra period, which saw James Young miss from beyond the arc, and after an inspired offensive rebound by Alex Poythress, spot up again and this time, scramble the nets to tie the game with 10 ticks left in OT.
Kentucky needed to play some of its best defense of the night and it did, forcing Arkansas to settle for an off-balance, contested three. But the team that might be the best rebounding ballclub in the country committed a mental turnover: Nobody boxed out.
Andrew Harrison and James Young fixated on the shot, losing track of Arkansas’ high-flying Michael Qualls. He soared to the rim and in one motion, caught the ball and rammed it home for the 87-85 victory.
It happened so quickly, the Wildcats didn’t even have a chance to foul him. But if they had, the officials would have been more than happy to call it.
You know how to call fouls, don’t you boys? Just put your whistle in your mouth and blow.
With apologies to Lauren Bacall (look her up, kids – she was a hottie before hotties were hotties), there’s no question that Ron Groover, James Breeding and Roger Ayers know how their whistles work. They whistled while they worked more than the Seven Dwarfs. Rumor was, at the end of regulation, they needed to dunk their whistles in ice water, just to cool them off.
They called 60 fouls and you could make the argument that they were equally bad on both ends, calling 31 on Kentucky, 29 on Arkansas. The Cats forced their way to the free throw line all night but couldn’t get it done, hitting just 26-of-40. With each miss, Arkansas grew more confident, although the Wildcats hit a healthier percentage in the second half, one of the big reasons they were able to actually take the lead a couple of times.
But they couldn’t build on it, at times because they couldn’t get stops and at times, because those confounded whistles kept going off.
TV replay seemed to show that James Young was called for a foul while the ball was actually out of bounds. That’s right – on a dead ball.
And the Razorbacks scored a crucial three-point play with nine seconds left in regulation as Alandise Harris drove the lane and released a floater. Willie Cauley-Stein waited in the lane and seemed to have been there since well before Harris left the floor. The collision sent the seven-footer sprawling Eight months ago, it would have been a charge. On this and seemingly every other night so far this season, it was a block.
The Twitter-verse instantly crackled with criticism of Cauley-Stein. A seven-footer, trying to take a charge? But unless Harris had stopped for a spot-up jumper, which he did not, there was no way Cauley-Stein would have had a clean look at a blocked shot. And lord knows, he would have been called for a foul of some sort, anyway. It was almost a prerequisite for any and every possession.
The Wildcats and Razorbacks both can take solace in the fact that while they might see any or all of these officials again during the regular season, it’s doubtful they’ll have to put up with them in the NCAA Tournament.
And it’s not too late to be thinking about that. Arkansas may have salvaged its season Tuesday night.
The Wildcats still have a chance to earn, if not a one seed, perhaps two or a three. But they have to start piling up victories, albeit one at a time.
Maybe a bitter pill they were forced to swallow on a winter’s night in Arkansas will be just the inspiration they need.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th 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.)