SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Eric Bledsoe, arguably Kentucky's most eager competitor, had never cried after a basketball game. But he wept unashamedly after UK lost to West Virginia on Saturday night.
Reporters entering the post-game locker room saw several of his teammates sitting with towels draped over their head as if to shield themselves from the reality of a 73-66 loss in the NCAA Tournament East Regional finals. This was more than just elimination from a tournament or the end of another season.
With its core of presumed one-and-done freshmen, Kentucky embodied the one-shining-moment anthem of the NCAA Tournament. And for all the glitter this season, they knew their all-too-brief time together would be no more.
"I mean, it hurts," freshman DeMarcus Cousins said of the defeat. "And the part that hurts the most is we'll never get a chance to play together again. That's the part that's killing me the most right now. I won't be able to play with my teammates, my brothers, again."
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Patrick Patterson, a graybeard on this team as a junior, found it easier to look beyond the immediate sting of defeat and reflect on a season of remarkable accomplishment. Standing bare-chested in front of reporters, he added a comforting perspective to the end of Kentucky's 2009-10 season.
"I think eventually we'll look back on this and say, 'Hey, we were a stepping stone to getting Kentucky back to national (prominence),'" he said. "Back to the kind of team Kentucky basketball is."
When John Calipari arrived as Kentucky's new coach this time a year ago, he downplayed the notion of an immediate revival. He did not walk on water, he said. He only promised to work diligently and in a few seasons Kentucky would be Kentucky again.
Then Calipari tried mightily to contradict himself. He persuaded the stars of his recruiting class at Memphis to follow him to Kentucky. (After the 4-for-32 three-point shooting against West Virginia, the mind can't resist pondering ... what if Xavier Henry had also came to UK?)
No one knew then that the freshmen, especially point guard John Wall and Cousins, would evoke comparisons to Michigan's iconic Fab Five.
Wall, whose debut was delayed by a game because of his involvement with an agent as a summer player, made an immediate impression. He hit the game-winning shot in the final seconds to beat Miami (Ohio). It was a preview of things to come by one of Kentucky's best clutch players in a long time.
The Cats won their first 19 games, giving Calipari the best start by any first-year Kentucky coach. Perhaps most gratifying, UK personified a quality Coach Cal prized enough to use as a book title: Refuse to lose.
That quality came in handy as the freshmen showed their age. Stretches of brilliance too easily bled into periods of distraction.
A final record of 35-3 served as a clever disguise for a team not nearly so dominant. Half the games were were decided by 12 or fewer points. UK's 16-3 record in those games reflected the players' resourcefulness, desire and sheer talent.
Aside from the winning (which at Kentucky is like saying aside from the oxygen), the season returned a sense of spectacle. It started with Big Blue Madness and Calipari's state-of-the-program address. Then there was UK beating North Carolina to the milestone 2,000th victory. The Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament championships restored Kentucky's status as the flagship program. So did a No. 1 national ranking.
Ashley Judd got company in the celebrity-fan category. LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Drake, Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger attended games in Rupp Arena.
Calipari's fan-friendly embrace of Kentucky basketball made his reclusive predecessor, Billy Gillispie, fade from memory.
Along the way, Kentucky won 35 games. In UK's long, storied basketball history, only the Fabulous Five season of 1947-48 saw more victories: 36-3.
"We did a lot of successful things," said Cousins, a double-double machine with 20. "But we didn't get our main goal, which was winning the national championship."
Calipari candidly preached the reality of college basketball: all is prelude to the NCAA Tournament.
Through the first three games, Kentucky seemed on schedule with its self-envisioned destiny. The Cats beat East Tennessee State, Wake Forest and Cornell by a combined 76 points. Only in 1993 and 1996 had UK won its first three NCAA Tournament games by more points (99 and 93, respectively).
Then came West Virginia, a veteran team from the rugged Big East Conference.
When UK's persistent regular-season problems with shooting from the foul line and the perimeter reappeared, West Virginia pounced.
"We've had shooting days like this," Calipari said in his post-game news conference. "But we won anyway because, maybe, the teams weren't quite as good as West Virginia. But, today, that team was too good for us to shoot like we did from the free-throw line and still win the game."
UK made only 10 of 22 second-half free throws en route to a 16-for-29 game from the foul line.
As Bledsoe said of West Virginia, "They were more athletic than any team we played this year."
The Mountaineers' Ratings Percentage Index of No. 4 made them the best Kentucky opponent this season. The only other opponents with a top-50 RPI were Tennessee (14), Vanderbilt (26) and Louisville (37).
WVU's 1-3-1 zone defense confused Kentucky.
"The 1-3-1 rattled us, I think, a little bit," Patterson said. "We had offensive sets to go against it. Unfortunately, we were not able to execute."
In the guts of the second half, the Cats appeared unnerved.
"They outplayed us," Calipari said of the Mountaineers. "But I think there were times that the inexperience, you know, hurt us. Understanding you're not going to catch it all at once. Or knowing that this is the guy you have to stop and we kind of lose him."
Most memorably, the East Regional's Most Outstanding Player, WVU point guard Joe Mazzulla, twice drove the length of the floor through Kentucky's defense for uncontested layups.
Or forward Devin Ebanks would beat his man on a cut down the lane, receive the pass and score a layup.
"We were all disappointed and shocked in our (defensive) performance," Patterson said.
In the first half, West Virginia did not make a shot inside the three-point line as Kentucky enjoyed an 18-0 advantage in points from the paint. In the second half, WVU battled the Cats to a 18-18 draw in points from the paint.
Kentucky mostly got its points in the paint, its life source all season, on the fast-break or off put-backs. When WVU could set up in its 1-3-1 zone, Kentucky struggled.
"It was a look we weren't used to and we just couldn't adjust," Cousins said. "I wish we'd had more time."
But, as the Cats knew only too well, the precious commodity of time had expired for this team's once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"It was an amazing year," Wall said. "But I came up short of my goal I had for myself and my teammates. And I'll always think of that."