Like a man trying to start a fire with wet matches, the frustration showed as Kentucky Coach John Calipari talked about the lack of competitive zeal he saw in Tuesday's 77-76 overtime loss at Arkansas. Once more, he identified toughness as the critical difference as UK lost for the sixth time in seven Southeastern Conference road games.
So, a reporter asked, can the elusive — but necessary — toughness be instilled at this late date?
"I don't know," Calipari said. "You tell me. If you have any suggestions, come tell me."
Of course, Kentucky did not surrender unconditionally at Arkansas. In the first half, especially, the Cats beat Arkansas to several loose balls. UK also outrebounded Arkansas 46-43, including an 8-2 advantage in overtime.
But the critical rebounds that got away down the stretch of regulation nagged Calipari as he recapped the loss in his post-game news conference. The Razorbacks' last three baskets in regulation, including the drive by Julysses Nobles that sent the game into overtime, came on second-chance opportunities.
Plus, Marshawn Powell's put-back marked Arkansas' first points in overtime.
"I think Powell just killed us," Calipari said of the Arkansas sophomore who had 22 points and 10 rebounds (his second double-double since Dec. 8). "Powell outplayed the guy playing him. Just outplayed him."
That would be freshman Terrence Jones, who had played so well in earlier games that 10 points, eight rebounds and a career high-tying four blocks at Arkansas represented a subpar performance.
That Powell took the initiative gnawed at Calipari.
"He just went right at him (Jones)," Calipari said. "He wasn't afraid of him. It was a toughness thing. Again, we need to learn."
Arkansas Coach John Pelphrey, one of UK's Unforgettables, hadn't forgotten his team's loss at Alabama four nights earlier. Alabama, statistically the SEC's best defensive team, limited Powell and Delvon Johnson to a combined six shots, three baskets, eight points and five rebounds in beating Arkansas 69-56.
"Alabama discouraged us," Pelphrey said. "Tonight (Powell) had resolve. I put on the board, 'Front-court guys, go at those guys. Make them move their feet. Crash into them a little bit.' "
Arkansas hoped to get UK's thin front court in foul trouble. That didn't happen. But Pelphrey was pleased to see Powell and Johnson combine for 28 points and 17 rebounds.
"Don't get discouraged," Pelphrey said of his message to Powell and Johnson. "We're coming right back and doing it again. I thought (Powell) did a good job of being resilient and being persistent."
Powell became the sixth front-court player to post a double-double against Kentucky this season. He was the ninth to grab 10 or more rebounds.
But Pelphrey cited Kentucky's 11 blocks, which equaled a season high, as evidence that the Cats were not pushovers.
"But it didn't deter us," Pelphrey said of the blocks. "We kept going. I think that's important to be persistent and have the will to go make a play. Doesn't mean you're always going to do it. But have courage and do it. ...
"I want us swinging. I want us throwing haymakers. I want us attacking. I want us to be an aggressive, aggressive basketball team. I thought they did that."
Another game going into overtime tested Arkansas' courage and willpower. The Hogs had lost all three overtime games earlier this season.
Leading scorer Rotnei Clarke said the Hogs were determined not to lose again.
"We had to win," he said of the attitude going into overtime. "We can't lose this. It's not an option."
That sounded like the kind of zeal sought by Calipari, who calls it a refusal to lose.
The UK coach saw it in Clarke, the former catch-and-shoot perimeter player who set career highs against UK by shooting 12 free throws and making 11.
"He threw that body in there and drew fouls," Calipari said of Clarke. "That's what hurt us more than his shooting."