John Clay: Look beyond: Cats' future looks bright

Although it was a dark night in Houston, future looks very bright for Cats

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 3, 2011 

HOUSTON — Seemed like an awful long wait for this.

A long wait to miss so many shots.

A long wait to miss so many free throws.

A long wait for Kentucky to lose by a single point, 56-55 to Connecticut in the national semifinals on Saturday night before a record crowd of 75,421 at Reliant Stadium.

It had been 12 seasons and 13 years since Kentucky's previous Final Four, and you wondered for most of the night at Reliant Stadium if the Cats would hit 14 shots. It ended up making 21, but out of 62 attempts for 33.9 percent.

It was Kentucky's worst shooting night since Feb. 12, 2008 against Vanderbilt, when the Cats made but 32.7 percent.

In so many ways, it seemed much like last year, when John Calipari's young team couldn't buy a basket and lost to West Virginia in the East Region finals, costing a 35-3 team a trip to the Final Four.

So in the end, Kemba Walker had 18 points and seven assists, and Connecticut was tough in the paint, and the Huskies move on to Monday night for a shot at the national title as Kentucky packs up and heads back to Lexington one game short of any college basketball team's ultimate goal.

Big deal.

Let's pinpoint some perspective inside the mammoth arena. Few figured Calipari's Cats would get this far. Five first-round draft picks from last year's team. No Enes Kanter. Six conference losses, all on the road. A six-man rotation. A No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament's toughest region.

That the Cats lost in Houston on Saturday night was nowhere near the story that was the Cats making it to Houston in the first place. It took a last-second Brandon Knight shot to beat Princeton. It took a second-half turnaround to beat West Virginia. It took grit and steal to beat overall top seed Ohio State, and some late-game fortitude to hold off North Carolina.

The Cats made it back — back to the Final Four.

OK, so Saturday night, that mainly meant hitting the back of the rim. The Cats missed six of their first eight shots, and it didn't get much better after that. By halftime, UK was at 28.1 percent. Knight hit just three of 11 shots, including one of five from three-point land. DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller were each 0-for-4.

You could say the Cats took bad shots, but that seemed to be more because they couldn't get good shots. Connecticut's defense got better as the half went on. Kentucky took 12 three-pointers the first half and made just two. The Cats also made just one of five free throws.

Down 31-21 at the half, the second half started with a rallying cry. Remember the Alamodome. Remember the last time the Cats were in the Final Four, back in 1998 at San Antonio, they trailed Utah by 10 at the half and rallied to hang a seventh championship banner in Rupp Arena.

When Knight and Miller opened the second half burying threes, you thought it might happen again. When Josh Harrellson scored inside a little more than three minutes into the second half, while being fouled, to cut the lead to 31-29, you thought the Cats had all the momentum.

But then Harrellson missed the free throw, one of eight Kentucky missed on the night. The Cats took a dozen. That should tell you right there an eighth national title was not to be.

Last Sunday in Newark, after Kentucky had beaten North Carolina, Calipari said this: "We've proved you can be a young team and make the Final Four."

Next year's will be a young team, too. But, oh my, the talent that will be invading campus once again. Michael Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer, the veritable all-star who's-who.

Who knows if Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb will still be here, the more the better, but it doesn't really matter. Calipari proved this year he can mix and match.

Saturday inside Reliant Stadium, the precious present was disappointing. But the future looks fine.

When the memory fades of the ball hitting the back of the rim, it will be remembered that was the year that brought the Cats all the way back, back to the Final Four.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @johnclayiv.

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