The day before the Kentucky-Louisville game, John Calipari told the media that one of the best things about the oncoming matchup of arch-rivals was that it would be decided by players making plays - not by the plays themselves.
In other words, it wouldn't come down to a battle of wits on the sideline.
Turns out, he was wrong. At least, that's the way Calipari sees it.
“This is not to take anything away from (Louisville’s) effort,” Calipari said. “I told my team, ‘You get it close, I'll get us over the edge. Just make this close.’ And they did.”
Calipari kicked himself all over the media room after U of L’s 80-77 win over UK. His players did, indeed, make plays - enough, he said, to win the game. It was the coach's failure to call a timeout when his team needed it the most that prevented the Wildcats from completing a comeback that saw them all but erase a 17-point deficit. And that’s according to the coach himself.
The Wildcats trailed just 78-74 with 18 seconds left when freshman forward Archie Goodwin found himself pinned on the sideline. That, Calipari said, was when he, the coach, should have stopped things. Instead, he let it play out and Goodwin turned the ball over, trying to throw a desperation skip pass over the Cardinal defense.
Chase Behanan picked it off and took it the length of the floor for a dunk and a six point lead.
“Believe me,” said Calipari, “I’m standing there thinking time out, and I didn't call it. That effectively ended the game."
Kentucky still made it interesting in the closing seconds, with Goodwin draining a step back three, but there were only three seconds left. The matter had been decided. Rick Pitino owned his first win over a Calipari-coached Kentucky team, one he said was good and was only going to get better.
They’re going to be a great team come February,” he said. “I marvel at what (Calipari) does with young players. Two weeks ago, I didn't think they were a very good basketball team. Now, they’re a hell of a basketball team.”
Calipari was just as lavish in his praise of the Cardinals and his self-criticism, he said, should take nothing away from the job U of L did in securing the victory. But he let his team down, Calipari said, when it needed him the most.
“I told them this one was on me,” he said. “Hopefully, I'll do a better job. Hopefully, I'll help us win more games than I cause us to lose. But that play - that's a coach's play. “As soon as he threw the ball away, I looked at John Robic and said, What was i thinking?”
The Wildcats were miserable at the free throw line, missing 12 of 23. Willie Cauley-Stein was 0-for-4, twice getting reprieves on lane violations but still missing to complete a pair of oh-fer trifectas. It doesn’t matter, Calipari said.
“We were down four with the ball and had our chances. (The Wildcats) deserved to win, the way they played down the stretch.”
Goodwin, naturally, didn't see it that way, telling reporters that he should have called time but was unsure of how many timeouts the Wildcats still owned. He was trying to avoid drawing a technical foul for asking for a timeout Kentucky didn’t actually have. And, Goodwin said, he was to blame for not knowing.
Point guard Ryan Harrow, adept enough with the pass today to register three assists, gave his coach a pass as well.
“I’m not going to blame Coach Cal,” he said. “He’s not the one out there playing. It's not on Coach Cal. It's on us.”
Harrow's resume' grew again on this afternoon at the Yum! Center. He all but carried the Wildcats offensively in the first half, when they saw a 18-12 lead vanish as the Cards took a 36-28 lead at intermission.
Harrow finished with 17 points but more impressively had zero – NONE; NADA - turnovers in 39 minutes, meaning his total in eight games so far still stands at just five. But found no solace in a great effort by his team, or himself.
“Every game is a big game for us,” Harrow said. “We need to make a statement. We're supposed to be the team making history and it's the other way around. We need to step up as a team and finish the season strong. It's not like a Kentucky team to keep losing.”
There is still history out there that can be made. The Southeastern Conference season begins this coming Saturday. This UK ballclub can take its place among others that have won conference titles, and then take aim at the NCAA tournament.
But a win over fifth-ranked Louisville would have gone a long way toward the Wildcats making a case for a high seed. Now, they'll have to make an impressive run through a league that has precious few teams that figure to help Kentucky's RPI.
The Cats can't worry about any of that. They just have to keep winning, by making the right plays for a coach who makes the right calls, when they're needed the most.
(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.)