Kentucky loses NCAA Final Four game to UConn, 56-55

Second-half rally not enough after cold-shooting first half

jtipton@herald-leader.comApril 3, 2011 

HOUSTON — Late in Kentucky's 15-rounder of an NCAA Tournament game with Connecticut, Jim Calhoun asked All-American Kemba Walker if he wanted a 30-second rest.

"He just bent over," Calhoun said. "He didn't respond."

It was empty-the-tank time as UConn outlasted Kentucky 56-55 Saturday in the national semifinals.

Afterward, the teams formed a mutual admiration society, grateful for the competition, if not, in UK's case, the result.

"They played terrific," Calhoun said of the Cats, who displayed how much they had grown since the embarrassing blowout loss to UConn on Maui in November.

"They gave us all we could handle," Calhoun added a moment later.

UK had to overcome a season-low 33.9-percent shooting. NCAA Tournament hero Brandon Knight made only six of 23 shots. But as if to remind fans of how he ignored poor shooting to hit clutch shots against Princeton and Ohio State earlier in the tournament, Knight made a three-pointer at the buzzer to set the final score.

"They gave us a chance," UK Coach John Calipari said of the comeback Cats this night. "That's all you can ask of young people. It's disappointing, but it was a heck of a year."

Kentucky finished one of its most memorable seasons with a 29-9 record.

UConn (31-9) advanced to the championship game Monday against Butler.

UK, which remained tied with North Carolina for the most NCAA Tournament victories with 105 each, was led by Knight with 17 points. Doron Lamb added 13, 11 of which came in the second half. Terrence Jones added 11.

But Jones missed all five of his free-throw attempts in a game Kentucky made only four of 12 from the line.

"Just a bad night from the free-throw line," Jones said as he sniffled back tears. "It really hurt."

As Calipari noted, "If you miss free throws and a bunch of threes, it's hard to advance. Just hard."

Kemba Walker led UConn with 18 points. But as DeAndre Liggins hoped, Walker had to work for it, making six of 15 shots. The All-American also had six rebounds and seven assists.

With the score tied at 48, UConn scored six straight points. That it took almost five minutes to get those points spoke to the game's merciless competitiveness.

Alex Oriakhi's putback put UConn ahead 50-48 with 6:46 left. When Shabazz Napier hit a pretty reverse layup off a baseline drive, the Huskies led 54-48 with 2:30 left.

Surely, no one in a Final Four record crowd of 75,421 was surprised Kentucky rallied.

After UK intercepted a Walker pass, Liggins rattled in a three-pointer from the right wing to reduce the deficit to 54-51. Ninety-seven seconds remained.

Freshman Jeremy Lamb missed a wild floater to give Kentucky a chance. Liggins cashed in with a heady play, using a shot fake to lift the defender. He made one of two free throws with 49.7 seconds left to reduce the deficit to 54-52.

After a UConn turnover, Kentucky had a chance to tie or go ahead in the final seconds. Liggins missed a three-pointer to cap a one-for-five night from beyond the arc.

Afterward, he acknowledged he should not have shot a three.

"I should have drove it," Liggins said. "I had hit a three (with 1:37 left). I thought I was hot."

For the first time since the game at Georgia in early January, Kentucky trailed by a double-digit margin at halftime.

Poor shooting played a big part in UK's 31-21 halftime deficit. The Cats made only nine of 32 shots (two of 12 from three-point range). The veterans — Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller and Liggins — combined to make one of 12 shots.

As a result, UK endured its lowest-scoring first half of the season. The previous low came at Tennessee, when the Cats trailed 29-22 at intermission.

It was the fewest first-half points since Jan. 24, 2009 at Alabama, when UK trailed 25-19 but rallied to win 61-51.

"We were timid," Liggins said.

Harrellson cited the Final Four atmosphere. "All the pressure," he said. "I guess it got to us."

Those looking for a hopeful sign would note that UK trailed West Virginia by eight in the third-round game. The Cats stormed back to win 71-63.

Just like in Tampa, Kentucky got back in the game. Barely 90 seconds into the second half, Knight and Miller hit three-pointers to match UK's first-half total.

Kentucky ran the same play three straight times to regain the lead. Harrellson handed off to Knight on the right side. Knight drove, then passed to Lamb on the left wing. Lamb's back-to-back three-pointers put the Cats ahead 35-32 with 15:03 left.

That marked UK's first lead since Walker hit a three-pointer with 10:33 left in the first half.

With the same play a third time, Knight used the pick-and-roll option and hit Harrellson for a dunk.

The action was so relentless that the 8:00 television timeout didn't come until only 2:09 left.

Calipari acknowledged that Knight tired. The freshman played all but 13 seconds.

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