Too little, too late for Wildcats
Early defensive woes, poor shooting doom Kentucky, Calipari
HOUSTON – All year long John Calipari preached the same message to anyone who would listen. This team needed to stay focused. The group is larger then the individual, listen to coach and he will take you far.
“My job as a coach is to get them all together on the same page and demand that they play together, demand that they defend together, demand they play with toughness, and not accept anything less than that,” Calipari said during Kentucky’s open practice on Friday.
The Wildcats were down by 10 at the halftime, unable to stop The Kemba and Lamb Show as UConn’s two guards combined for 17 of the Huskies’ 31 points scored in the first half.
The stout defense that had become Kentucky’s trademark during the tournament was nowhere to be found.
Calipari must have given a halftime speech for the ages because the Wildcats come out ready to play. There was a crispness that was missing during the first half of the game. Kentucky found their defensive mojo, blocking shots, grabbing rebounds and holding the Huskies scoreless for more than three minutes.
Using well-executed plays and a smothering defense Kentucky took the lead on a 3-pointer by Doron Lamb five minutes into the second half. It would be the only lead the Wildcats would have the rest of the game. Brandon Knight sank a 3-pointer as time expired to cut the deficit to 1, but it was too late. The UConn Huskies were headed to the national championship game on Monday night.
Poor shooting plagued the Wildcats and Calipari expressed that after the game.
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“I told them how proud I was of them. I said, ‘We just shot 33 percent and had a chance to win the game.’ I think the enormity of the game in the first half hurt us and affected us, but we came back in the second half. Doron Lamb came up big, Brandon Knight made a couple of plays, and all of a sudden we have our chance.”
Kentucky’s championship hopes were dashed because of what has been an Achilles’ heel for many Calipari-coached teams – poor free-throw shooting. The Wildcats were only 4 of 12 from the free-throw line.
“Unbelievable,” Calipari said. “We had been shooting free throws really well and we just didn’t make them. I don’t know what to say.”
Calipari is an interesting figure during the game. He has a stool on the sideline, but spends most of the time bouncing around the team bench and barking orders to his players. He never looks happy, even when the team is winning. During timeouts his squad huddles around him while he sits on a chair and draws up plays. He has this look to him that this could all unravel any second unless the team can execute the play he has bouncing around his head to perfection. He coaches with his heart on his sleeve and it is open for the entire world to see.
Well-heeled Kentucky fans who were sitting a few feet away from the team bench could hear Calipari shout to a Kentucky player “We recruited you because you can shoot the ball – now shoot the ball!”
Those same fans could see Calipari’s face turn tomato-can red when he screamed about Breven Knight scoring in traffic, “I TOLD HIM TO DRIVE THE LANE AND NOW HE’S DRIVING THE LANE!”
This Kentucky team, like the rest of the Final Four, wasn’t supposed to make it to Houston. At the end of the day all Calipari want to do was to give his players a chance to win.
“I told them, I said, ‘This was another game for me.’ I just wanted to coach them and give them the best opportunity to win, and they had their chance. That’s all I wanted. In the second half, we cane out and balled and played and fought and scratched and changed defenses, which we normally don’t do, and played some zone, which we normally don’t do, just to keep us in the game. And then we made plays to get up and looked like we were going to win the game, but it’s been a crazy tournament year.”
Calipari has always said he wants his most talented players to begin their professional careers as soon as possible. How many of his talented freshmen will return? Four McDonald’s All-Americans will play for the Wildcats next season. Can Kentucky make a return trip to the Final Four?
Next year will probably be a crazy tournament year as well.