The last 8.7 seconds of Kentucky’s not-so-shocking loss to Robert Morris was a microcosm of the entire season: The Wildcats failed to execute when they needed to the most, on both ends of the floor.
The Colonials seemingly had out-foxed themselves by calling timeout with only five seconds remaining on the shot clock. But anyone watching on television could see the out-of-bounds play developing, and ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes, the former UK assistant coach, all but called it before it happened.
He didn’t like the way UK’s Alex Poythress was challenging the passer and, sure enough, the triggerman found a teammate breaking wide open for the basket. That Willie Cauley-Stein was able to block the first shot was fortuitous, but an unfortunate carom gave the ball back to Robert Morris, and WCS had no choice but to foul.
Mike McFadden, who had replaced teammate Lucky Jones in the lineup when Jones was ejected for clothes-lining Archie Goodwin, drained the free throws, setting up Kentucky’s second stage of futility.
The Wildcats, who had clawed their way back into the game behind a gritty performance by Goodwin, literally ignored him with the game in the balance. Goodwin never had the chance to do what he does best, what had pulled UK back into the game: Drive and create, perhaps getting to the free throw line.
Instead, Kentucky got a futile attempt at a three-pointer from Kyle Wiltjer, who was about four steps behind the arc. It bounced harmlessly away and the celebration was on. Twenty years from now, more than a hundred thousand Pittsburghers will claim they were at the Sewall Center the night Bob Morris took down mighty Kentucky.
And the Colonials did it the way too many others had done it this season – by grinding the UK offense to a halt.
The same team that scored just 48 points in a Southeastern Conference tournament loss to Vanderbilt, managed just 55 against RMU. The team that had the 7-foot lottery pick on its end of the floor couldn’t figure out a way to consistently work him into its offensive flow. Nor could they find a play that might now and then spring Julius Mays, whose outside shooting was key in crucial wins this year against Missouri and Texas A&M.
Only the grittiness of Jarrod Polson in the first half and Goodwin in the second kept the Cats close, but in the end, it wasn’t enough. Nothing seemed to be enough this season.
There wasn’t enough heart, enough drive, toughness, zeal, passion – or experience. Not enough grizzled veterans who had been through enough wars to know how reach down for something extra when their team needed it the most.
Face it – if someone had told you before the game began that Kentucky would hold Robert Morris to 57 points total, how would you have felt? Happy? Confident? Certain of victory? Maybe. But admit it – that little voice inside your head would have been whispering, reminding you of what happened last weekend in Nashville, or two weeks before that in Athen, Georgia, where the offense fell asleep and managed just 62 points.
You have to give the Cats credit. They fell behind double digits in both halves, and both times battled all the way back. That says something about their desire. They showed some toughness in a place that was hostile, to be sure.
But didn’t it seem at times as though the Robert Morris offense was a simple three-step process, while every Kentucky bucket was an uphill climb through a mine field? Even UK’s alley oop plays, it seemed, ran into anti-aircraft fire.
Why so much trouble on offense? Consider this: Our discussion here has come this far without so much as a mention of Ryan Harrow. He was the heir-apparent at point guard, the guy who, according to several who witnessed practices last season, regularly challenged Marquis Teague each day. Tuesday night, he vanished. Again.
John Calipari subbed for him early and obviously liked what he saw in Polson, who finished with 31 minutes, 10 points, three assists and just one turnover. Harrow, in what might have been his last game in a Kentucky uniform (well, you have to wonder about that, don’t you?), played nine minutes. Five points, zero assists, two turnovers – that’s all he could muster.
It just didn’t work. Harrow at the point, the tight player rotation, short bench, twin towers – and then came the injury to Nerlens Noel. The Cats floundered. Maybe it’s basketball karma.
It was just a season ago that the only real complaint the Wildcats and their fans could register was about a last-second shot in Bloomington, Indiana, which actually served as motivation for a team that would not be denied.
This year’s squad, it seemed, was constantly turning corners – or at least, we couldn’t wait to announce that it had. As it turns out, all that corner-turning meant just one thing – Kentucky was stuck in a maze, and couldn’t find its way out.
The loss in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, was one last, sad, frustrating dead end.
(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.)