No matter how Thursday night's NCAA Tournament first-round match at the UK Soccer Complex turned out, there would be no denying that Kentucky has enjoyed a turnaround season.
That didn't ease the disappointment, though, when Xavier came in and ended the Wildcats' season 1-0.
Luke Spencer's goal with 4:40 left was the difference.
"It's a tough loss for us, of course," UK Coach Johan Cedergren said. "You don't want to go out this early in the tournament.
"But, at the same time, I think you have to look at where we're coming from. I think it's 2003 since we've been dancing last time. I'm not happy with how we played today. I think the occasion maybe got the better of us at times — we looked a little nervous, a little tentative. But at the same time, it's been a heck of a season. I couldn't be any prouder of the guys."
Xavier (14-2-5) advances to the round of 32 and will visit 16th-seeded Indiana, Sunday at 1 p.m. The Hoosiers had a first-round bye.
The Musketeers, with a school-record victory total, are in the NCAA tourney for the third year in a row.
UK (10-9-2) rebounded from a 1-4 start under their first-year coach to make the tourney for the fifth time, and for the first time since 2003.
Senior co-captains Matt Lodge and Cameron Wilder said the new coaching staff triggered the turnaround.
"We trained hard every day, day in and day out," Lodge said. "And I think that helped a lot."
"In the end, we just excelled and got better every day," Wilder added. "It's just unfortunate (to lose) ... but it's been a great season."
Xavier dominated a scoreless first half, outshooting the Cats 6-1 and getting two corner kicks to none.
UK countered in the second half by outshooting the visitors 8-4, although Xavier had a 5-1 bulge in corners.
"I have a lot of respect for Kentucky, but I really felt like tonight we were solid from start to finish," Musketeers Coach Andy Fleming said. "We played a complete game. Except for maybe an eight-minute lull in the middle of the second half, I felt like we had command of the game and really played well."
UK's Jack Van Arsdale made three saves, but had no chance on the one that got past.
On a counter-attack, Matt Walker dribbled deep down the right wing, then crossed the ball for Spencer.
"It was a difficult ball for the defender to handle, and it got by him," said Spencer, who was open just inside the back post. "It was coming with pace, so I figured I'd take a touch, and had to toe-poke it. But it still ended up being a goal."
UK turned up the heat in the closing minutes, but goalkeeper Justin Mitchell didn't have to make an official save.
"Defensively, it's being locked in and working together as a team and as a group," Xavier back Sean Ryan said. "And not leaving anybody out to dry."Fleming noted that his team had gone about two weeks without blocking a shot. At one point in the second half, the Musketeers blocked two in a span of about 15 seconds.
"I felt like our midfield, in the middle-third of the field, won the scrums and won the fifty-fifties," Fleming said, "and really was the catalyst for us defensively, so they couldn't get to our back four."
Cedergren, on a night with mixed emotions, didn't disagree.
"We definitely probably didn't play as well as we could have ... but, at the same time, you've got to give Xavier a lot of credit," Cedergren said.
"In the end, Xavier showed why they're still playing. And then, maybe we still have some things to learn from them."
Xavier 1, Kentucky 0
Goal—X: Luke Spencer. Goalkeepers—X: Justin Marshall; UK: Jack Van Arsdale. Records—X: 14-2-5; UK: 10-9-2.
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229Twitter: @MarkMaloneyHLBlog: markmaloney.bloginky.com