Fifty-four times I had gone to see the Cats play in person. Sometimes it was at Thompson-Boling Arena in Tennessee, a few times it was Freedom Hall, but the majority of those games were in Rupp Arena. The opponents ranged from hyphenated-directional-polytech-U schools, to big SEC games, to North Carolina. There were close games, blowouts, and a couple of games where the Cats had to make a furious rally in the final minutes to take a game to overtime. But all 54 of those games had one thing in common: UK won all of them.
Another active streak was the 42 consecutive home wins for the Cats. There was also Cal’s .969 winning percentage in Rupp since he has been the coach at Kentucky. Adding those streaks to my own personal winning streak, it seemed everything was falling in place for a big game in an electric atmosphere. Enter UCLA.
You knew as soon as you entered Rupp Arena nearly 2 hours before tip-off that this would be a special game. Two storied programs, both ranked (UK #1, UCLA #11) in the AP poll, and two exceptionally talented guards (De’Aaron Fox and Lonzo Ball. A nationally televised afternoon game on CBS. Marlana VanHoose performing the national anthem. A “blue-white” promotion from UK Athletics where fans were asked to dress in blue or white, depending on their seat location in Rupp. Pom poms were placed in all the seats, and everything was set for what many expected to be the most entertaining college basketball game of the season.
The first ten minutes were about as I had expected them to be: fast-pace and close and the 2 teams got a feel for one another. Then the Cats had a nice run to break open a 9-point lead, and for a brief moment, it felt like this game wasn’t going to be nearly as close as most had predicted. That feeling was short-lived however, and the Bruins not only erased that deficit, but also took a 4 point lead to the locker room at halftime.
UK Athletics did their part to keep the crowd’s great energy up during halftime. When Marcus McClinton suddenly appeared with a microphone to get the noise level amped up, you knew something pretty cool was about to happen. Next, fans were treated to a video tribute to Kentucky’s 2016 football team. At the end of the video, the cheers turned into a roar as Coach Mark Stoops and the football team paraded onto the court with the Governor’s Cup. It was a very special moment for both players and fans, and you just knew this positive energy was going to feed the Cats into playing a great second half.
As it turned out, the Cats just never could get things going for any period of time. While UCLA seemingly couldn’t miss a shot, the Cats were unable to hit one. You could look at the FG % for both teams (UCLA 53%, UK 41.3%), or you could look at the free throw shooting (UCLA 81%, UK 66.7%). Either of those stats could indicate shooting was the main problem facing UK today. Ultimately though, I think the most telling number was in the assists column. Having tallied 149 assists through the first 7 games this season, we had come to expect 20+ assists in every game. Saturday’s total? Only 16. This number was one Calipari focused on in his post-game comments:
“Why didn’t we pass today? Because it was on national television, it’s my time? We all look bad. (But) there are great lessons out of this. I wish we would have come back and won. I would have liked to learn from that lesson a little bit more. But sometimes you need to get hit on the chin, especially at home.”
These young Cats did indeed get hit on the chin. At home. On national television. So what happens next?
For me, it will take some time to recover from the broken streak. The Cats’ perfect record when I was in attendance was a carrot I dangled in front of friends who would get NCAA Tournament/Final Four tickets to see UK play. I would tell them that the Cats never lost if I was in the building, hoping that one day, someone would insist on taking me with them to the Final Four just to ensure a UK victory. I no longer have that leverage. But how will the team respond?
Well, there is certainly no need for fans to panic. Kentucky has a brutal December schedule and a bump or stumble along the way was almost expected. Count me among those that see a lot of potential good coming from this loss. The coaches will have a full game tape of teaching opportunities. This team is filled with players that are hard workers that are eager to learn and improve each game. I fully expect the Cats to bounce back and regain their focus on sharing the ball and thus, getting higher percentage shots. These young men do not like to lose, and I have no doubt they will be taking all of Cal’s instruction to heart.
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This week: Wednesday, 12/7 Valparaiso; Sunday, 12/11 Hofstra