Advancing to 34 Elite Eights is no small accomplishment. As a matter of fact, it’s an NCAA record. But at Kentucky, banners are not hung for Elite Eights. You have to get to the Final Four and the Wildcats knew a win on Sunday versus fellow SEC team Auburn would send UK to their 18th Final Four (2nd best in the NCAA).
It would be the 3rd meeting of the two teams this season, with Kentucky winning both matchups in the regular season. Neither team could take much from the previous games, though. While Kentucky was finally back at full strength with PJ Washington and Reid Travis pretty much healed from injuries suffered a few weeks ago, Auburn had the devastating blow of losing Chema Okeke during Friday’s matchup versus North Carolina when he tore his ACL.
There were reasons for the BBN to be confident. there was no reason to believe the Cats would do anything BUT win. But that’s exactly what happened as the Tigers advanced to their first-ever Final Four. It took overtime, but ultimately the Tigers prevailed 77-71.
The first half was uneven at best. In spite of the Cats seemingly doing whatever they wanted down low, they inexplicably started jacking up 3-pointers (4-13 for the first half). Kentucky did manage to take a 5-point lead to halftime (35-30), primarily due to Auburn not making their usual number of long-range shots (3-11).
Just as quickly as it seemed the Cats were going to go on a run, Auburn stopped them again. Then the unthinkable happened: Kentucky, a strong free-throw shooting team all season, perhaps the best free-throw shooting in Cal’s time at UK, couldn’t seem to make the shots from the charity strike when it mattered the most. Shooting an abysmal 60% turned out to be the Cats’ undoing.
In spite of lackluster guard play by all 3 of UK’s normally reliable trio of Hagans, Quickley, and Herro, Calipari’s team managed to play some solid defense and tied Auburn at 60 when regulation expired.
But PJ Washington’s 28 points and 15 rebounds would not be enough.
Keldon Johnson’s 14 points and 10 rebounds would not be enough.
Reid Travis’ 9 points and 6 rebounds would not be enough.
Tyler Herro’s 7 points and 6 assists? Not enough on this day.
And Kentucky fans have seen Reid Travis in his final game as a Wildcat, and likely will not see PJ Washington, Keldon Johnson, or Tyler Herro again.
It was a Big Blue Heartbreak on this day in Kansas City, but there is nothing these players should be ashamed about. After beginning the season with a 34-defeat by the hated Blue Devils and essentially being written off by everyone in college basketball after a single game, these Cats had fire, grit, and determination and spent an entire season improving and learning to play as a team.
Our hearts are broken for these kids because, yes, they are kids. They’ve put their hearts and souls into this game only to fall just short of a trip to Minneapolis. As for this writer, thank you Cats. It was one heck of a ride and I enjoyed it from your first game to your last.
Until next season…
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