Derek Willis was enjoying one of the best nights of his Kentucky career.
With Kansas in Rupp Arena for the first time since 2005, the atmosphere was electric and Willis was living a dream.
Against the No. 2 team in the country, UK’s senior forward had his long-range radar locked in.
Minutes after famous boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer exclaimed “Let’s get ready for round-baaaallllllll!,” Willis bounded off the Wildcats bench and started draining three-pointers.
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One. Two. Three. Four. He hit his first five in a row en route to an 18-point performance.
Had No. 4 Kentucky held onto the 12-point lead it opened late in the first half, Willis was set up to be one of the heroes in what would have been a season-defining victory for the Wildcats.
Alas, UK did not hold onto the lead.
Worse for Willis, the pivotal play of Kansas’ 79-73 victory before a shocked Rupp crowd of 24,418 came at the senior’s expense.
With Kansas clinging to a 71-66 lead, Jayhawks guard Devonte’ Graham rose for a jump shot with 1:13 left.
When the ball came off, Willis and Kansas star freshman Josh Jackson were the only two under the basket.
It was the epitome of a 50-50 rebound.
Jackson, a 6-foot-7, 210-pound frosh, ripped the ball away from Willis and dropped it back in the hoop. Kansas (19-2) had a three-possession lead at 73-66 and was on its way to Self’s fifth victory against Kentucky in eight games.
“He just got the ball,” a subdued Willis said afterward. “He beat me to it and scored it.”
Both Self and Kentucky Coach John Calipari were in unison on the significance of Jackson’s putback.
“It was huge,” Self said.
Added Calipari: “When it is just you and a guy and either he gets it or you get it, you’ve got to fight. And that’s something (Willis) has got to continue to work on.”
For Willis, the shame of being on the wrong end of the game’s pivotal play was that Kentucky would not even have been close without his shooting.
Willis hit both his three-point tries in the first half when Kentucky had a chance — but failed — to put cold-shooting Kansas (12-of-30 field goals, 0-of-8 three-pointers) away.
Up 31-19 with 3:39 left before halftime, UK (17-4) watched KU end the half on an 8-1 run to pull within 32-27 at the intermission.
Given new life, Kansas found its offensive rhythm in half two; meanwhile Self’s decision to play mostly 2-3 zone flummoxed Kentucky.
What kept UK alive was Willis. The forward hit three more treys before finally missing an open look in the corner.
Willis said he was so excited about facing Kansas, he stayed up all night Friday watching KU video.
“I was really focused on this game,” Willis said.
Yet instead of a wonderful senior-year memory, the Kansas game instead became something of a microcosm of Willis’ UK career.
His offensive skill tantalized, but ultimately it was undone by a deficiency in another area.
“He missed a couple of rebounds,” Calipari said. “But I left him in there because I felt we needed his shooting. You know, he’s going to give a little bit up defensively and rebounding, but you’re hoping he can make enough shots to make this thing close. I thought he did a good job on the offensive end.”
In the big picture, Kentucky has issues other than failing to claim one 50-50 rebound. As much fun as UK has been in transition offense this year, teams that can slow the Cats down — as Kansas did with its zone — and force Kentucky to execute in half-court offense have foiled UK.
Still, if we learned nothing else from Kentucky’s 2013-14 season, we know that teams with talent always have a chance to figure things out as long as there is basketball still to play.
“We didn’t play winning basketball down the stretch — and I was part of that,” Willis said. “And we know we won’t make a run in March unless we start doing that.”