John Clay: Cats take quick ride from top to bottom

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 19, 2013 

MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — If you were a Kentucky basketball fan, you wanted last year to go on forever.

This year, by the end, for the most part, you couldn't wait for it to end.

Last year, Kentucky's season ended with the Cats cutting down the nets in the Superdome.

This year, it ended with Robert Morris University students rushing the court of its 3,000-seat gymnasium.

That's how it goes. Last year isn't this year, and this year isn't last year. Every year is different. What you did last year doesn't guarantee anything for the next year. One year you're on top of the world. The next year you're under someone else's wheels.

Kentucky lost 59-57 to Robert Morris in the opening round of the NIT on Tuesday night before a packed and passionate crowd at the Sewell Center. And if this was the last place UK wanted to be after missing the NCAA Tournament, the Colonials didn't want to be any place else.

Three hours before the game, RMU students were lined up waiting for the doors to open. Once inside, they were yelling and chanting and making noise two hours before the tip. When Kentucky players came on the floor for initial warm-ups, the students started chanting "Overrated! Overrated!"

That might have applied in pre-season, when John Caliapri's club was ranked No. 3 in the first Associated Press poll. It sure didn't apply now for a team that couldn't even make the NCAA field of 68.

And the game started that way, Robert Morris coming out of the gate fast, Kentucky stuck in the gate.

"We got down 10-0," said Calipari. "The game was too physical for us."

Same as it has been pretty much all season. Give Kentucky credit for fighting back from a 13-point deficit in the second half to tie the game at 53-53 with 3:15 left, thanks in large part to the play of Archie Goodwin and Jarrod Polson.

But two engaged players were not enough. In the end, there were too many mistakes, including at game's end when the Cats messed up defensively on a Robert Morris in-bounds play that resulted in the Colonials getting fouled and Mike McFadden hitting two free throws with 8.7 seconds left for the 59-57 advantage.

Kentucky had one last chance, but the three-pointer missed. Game over. Season over. Time to move on.

"The best thing that is going to happen to us next year is that we're going to have unbelievable competition at every spot," said Calipari afterward. "So there's no one promised, saying 'OK, I played 30 minutes a game.' You may play five. The stuff I had to accept this year, the program almost got hijacked."

The coach said he did things this year to try and save guys, and in the end "that never works."

He said he won't do that again. He said two players "let go of the rope" to where he could not put them in the game. He didn't name names. But Ryan Harrow played all of nine minutes. Kyle Wiltjer played 10. Alex Poythress played 27 minutes but grabbed all of two rebounds.

Asked about Harrow's future, Calipari said he would have individual meetings with all the players, "but I'm not ready to do that yet."

He said he was going recruiting on Wednesday, to look at juniors.

When Calipari stood up at the end of the news conference, his chair fell back and broke. It was a fitting end.

When Robert Morris coach Andy Toole came in for his news conference, he talked about how happy he was for his players and the team's fans. He said that when he first saw Kentucky, he was surprised that its players weren't more physically imposing. He said that early on his team fed off the intensity of the crowd, but then it just settled down and played basketball.

When he finished, the RMU fans who made their way into the press room gave the smiling coach a big round of applause.

If the Big Blue Nation was smiling, it was only one of relief, that finally this disappointing season had come to a close.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com.

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