Like basketball's version of Goldilocks, Kentucky Coach John Calipari continues to search for — ahhh — just the right way to play the final few minutes of a game.
The Cats were too cool down the stretch of Tuesday's victory over Mississippi State. They largely dismissed time and score and played freely and loosely. Turnovers and air balls ensued as a 13-point cushion with barely three minutes left dwindled to a four-point paper towel with 40 seconds still to play.
This came after Calipari saw UK players as too hot — too anxious — because of the close score and ticking clock at the ends of earlier games. So he had suggested the Cats not look at the scoreboard.
"Forget about the score," he said after Tuesday's game. "Let's execute. Don't look at the score. I'll look at the score. You just play and execute.
"So, obviously, they weren't looking at the score," he added as reporters chuckled. "They just were shooting balls, trying to make plays. So they're listening to me, anyway."
Free-throw shooting, which hadn't been much of a problem, loomed large in the final minutes against Mississippi State. Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight missed the front end of one-and-ones. Jones and Doron Lamb each made only one of two free throws in the final 33.7 seconds.
Free throws aside, UK players saw signs of progress in the Mississippi State game.
"We executed the plays Coach wanted us to run to get fouled," Jones said, "and we got open when Darius (Miller) was taking it out."
Knight noted the positive of calling two timeouts in the final 34.4 seconds rather than trying something risky.
"Before, there have been times we've tried to throw bad passes," he said. "This time, we wanted to make sure we utilized the timeouts."
Calipari also mentioned the timeouts as a step forward in handling late-game situations.
"That's why I like to have timeouts in my pocket," the UK coach said.
Oh, Calipari saw room for improvement.
He noted how Lamb and Jones were open to take an inbounds pass, and the ball went to Jones, the poorer free-throw shooter.
Then there was an air ball by Jones.
"The air-ball shot, the two turnovers, what are we doing?" Calipari said. "... We come up, and we don't space the court right. There were things down the stretch; we give them two open threes. The game got hairy. We had a chance to lose the game."
This was nothing new. Kentucky has repeatedly seen would-be comfortable victories become tests of execution.
"Yeah, it can get frustrating at times for all of us," Miller said. "We continue to talk about it. We continue to try to work on it."
Josh Harrellson acknowledged that Calipari's idea of ignoring the scoreboard, at best, needs work.
"We're like kids in a candy store," he said. "Don't look at the score. All 12 of us look up. Everybody's going to look at the score."
Miller saw why Calipari would suggest the players not look at the scoreboard.
"Coach thinks it's us looking at the score and, I guess, getting comfortable at times and slipping back once we get the lead," Miller said.
Calipari's search for not-too-cold/not-too-hot fits his job description. As coach, he is charged with finding just the right way to finish games.
Even with a six-man rotation of three freshmen and three career role players, some fans would blame the coach for Kentucky's late-game struggles. Miller disagreed.
"I don't really think it can be," he said. "We're the ones out there. It was, like, slip-ups, careless mistakes, really. It was us turning the ball over. You can't really coach not turning the ball over."