There were passes that sailed out of bounds, dribbles that bounced off feet, lobs that never found their mark. Of course, there were also the 42 missed shots in 59 attempts by South Carolina, which is why Kentucky slid away with a 77-55 win over the Gamecocks Tuesday night in Rupp Arena.
SC managed to take an 18-17 lead with 10:22 left in the first half, but the Wildcats finished the period on a 28-7 run and never really looked back. In fact, they went on an immediate 11-0 tear, prompting the post-game question of John Calipari: Do you recall what was said in the huddle at that point?
“No,” said the UK coach. “We shoot 60 percent, hold them to 28 (percent) and I’m not totally happy. I must be a jerk. I’ve been called worse, by the way.”
No, he’s not. He’s just a coach frustrated by a team that might not be taking two steps back for every one it’s taking forward (Kentucky HAS won four straight now), but at times seems to be moving laterally – and not the good way, the way you’re supposed to on defense.
Against the Gamecocks, UK committed 17 turnovers, many of them unforced – not to mention poor passes that WERE completed but didn’t give the receiver a chance to do much with it.
There was a marked lack of urgency in a team that had just returned from back-to-back road games with victories, playing at times as though it knew this was a woefully outmanned South Carolina team that has the worst defensive field goal percentage in the league.
That’s a big reason the Wildcats finished 27-of-44 for 61 percent from the floor, and 5-of-8 from behind the arc (Julius Mays shot a scorching 4-of-5 from downtown, en route to a team-high 15).
Kentucky did benefit from an infusion of energy brought by Willie Cauley-Stein, who played as though he was intent on making up for every minute of time lost to a surgical procedure on his knee, which cost him four games. In 22 minutes, Cauley-Stein threw in 13 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked two shots – and he ran the floor with purpose.
“He added energy,” Calipari said. “He went after balls, rebounded the ball. He’s active.”
Calipari voiced some of the same concerns after the 22-point victory that he did after close calls and losses – not enough toughness, a dearth of aggressiveness, failure to look after teammates. Once again, he had to use the bench to motivate Alex Poythress, who sat down early in the second half.
“He missed two dunks – you’re out,” Calipari said. “What’s wrong? Tired? Your leg hurts? Toenails? We’re not that kind of team. We gotta ball.”
He says it as though he believes that if they ever do commit to running with the throttle wide open, they could make a post-season run that could be richly rewarding.
And Calipari admitted to allowing himself, every so often, to reflect on the fact that his team last year brought home the big trophy – from the same place where they played the Super Bowl Sunday night, in a game that lasted longer than it should have, thanks to a balky electrical transformer somewhere.
“When those lights went off in New Orelans, I said, what if that happened to us? You know we’d all have said it was a conspiracy,” he said with a smile. “And if we had lost the game it would have been, ‘The world’s against us.’
“My concern is these players,” he said. “I want them to have the great joy my other teams have had late in the year.”
Not all of his teams, of course, have won the NCAA title. But a lot of them have made deep runs into the tourney, going all the way to the Final Four. He wants that for this ballclub, one that hasn’t yet tapped into the singularity of purpose that it takes.
“It isn’t about you and how you feel,” Calipari said. “It’s about how you are and your teammates. When you think about Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, you’re talking about kids who cared about their teammates, the joy you get coming together and doing something unique and special. That’s why I get frustrated sometimes.”
There’s no way, he said, that he’ll ever throw his hands up and simply rest on last year’s laurels. That, he said, would be cheating his players.
“This is these players feeling the joy that I felt with other teams - and we can do that.”
He has the faith. And there’s still enough season left for it to happen. But the change needs to get here, and soon.