John Clay: Painful defeat ends season of major victories

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — In the end, Kentucky picked the biggest game of the year to play its worst game of the year.

In the end, Kentucky's wondrous freshmen, who had been so mature, so poised, played so young.

In the end, a great and wondrous season that had taken the Wildcats so far, came up short.

What was it that Bob Huggins said Friday about you had to be lucky to make the Final Four?

This Kentucky team may not have had many weaknesses, but in the East Regional finals, Kentucky was unlucky enough to have all of them laid bare in a 73-66 loss to West Virginia.

■ Inconsistent three-point shooting: Kentucky missed its first 20 three-point attempts and ended up 4-for-32 from beyond the arc.

"It gets a little demoralizing when you miss the shots that we missed," said UK Coach John Calipari afterward.

■ Spotty foul shooting: The Cats made just 16 of 29 from the foul line for 55.2 percent.

"We kept missing free throws," said Calipari. "Oh my goodness."

■ The task of trying to win it all starting three freshmen: Huggins' older, more experienced Mountaineers got into the heads of the Cats, employing a tricky 1-3-1 zone on defense and knocking down big shots on offense.

"They outplayed us," said Calipari, "but I think there were times when our inexperience hurt us."

But then Calipari said this: "It also got us where we are today."

He's right about that. A year ago, Kentucky was losing to Notre Dame in the quarterfinals of the NIT. There was no John Wall, no DeMarcus Cousins, no Eric Bledsoe, no Daniel Orton. There was a different coach.

All that was magically swept away nearly the day Calipari took the job. He sold the program. He mended the fences. He brought in unbelievable talent. He won an SEC regular-season title, an SEC Tournament title. He attained a No. 1 ranking and a No. 1 seed. He took the program back to that seat at the head table.

Then, in the biggest game of the year, he ran up against a savvy old friend with an air-tight plan.

Give Huggins credit. His 1-3-1 zone defense bothered the Cats. It cut off penetration. It forced the Cats to settle for three-pointers. Kentucky settled. And missed. And missed. Kentucky missed its first 20 three-point attempts, before DeAndre Liggins hit a triple with 3:28 left.

You knew West Virginia would play well defensively. Huggins' teams always play well defensively. What you didn't know is that Huggins' team would make shots. While Kentucky was throwing up bricks, WVU was finding nothing but net. The Mountaineers made 10 of 23 three-pointers.

Point guard Joe Mazzulla, pressed into action when starting point guard Darryl Bryant broke his foot earlier in the week, averaged 2.2 points on the season. Saturday, he scored 17.

"He hit some layups that were backbreakers," said Calipari.

There will be those who say this was a backbreaking loss. Kentucky basketball has high standards. And this was the program's fourth straight Elite Eight loss. Calipari's team extended the string that started in 1999 with Tubby Smith and continued twice more. Kentucky still hasn't been to a Final Four since 1998, the longest gap in the program's storied history since Adolph Rupp reached his first Final Four in 1942.

If the game was a near-epic failure, however, the season was a near-epic success. In the moment, though, that was of little solace to the team on the losing end at the Carrier Dome.

With 51.3 seconds left, not long before the West Virginia band struck up Country Roads, John Wall fouled out. He walked off the floor rolling up the front of his Kentucky jersey, probably the last time he'll wear that jersey in a college game.

"I didn't want it to stop here," Wall said afterward. "I wanted to make it all the way."

In the end, Kentucky picked a bad day to have its worst day.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader