Derek Willis sat slumped in front of his locker in FedExForum with a towel draped around the back of his head.
“I’m just sick,” the Kentucky senior forward said.
“I felt like I gave my heart and soul,” the UK senior guard said. “I just wish there were a few more games.”
North Carolina’s buzzer-beating 75-73 win over Kentucky Sunday did more than deny the Wildcats an 18th Final Four berth. UK’s loss in the 2017 NCAA Tournament South Region finals ended the college careers of homegrown seniors Willis and Hawkins.
The departures of the former Bullitt East and Madison Central products could lead to a possible first in Wildcats basketball history in 2017-18. Next season, UK may not have a recruited, scholarship player from the commonwealth on its roster.
In an era when Kentucky basketball is defined by five-star recruits turning themselves into one-and-done pros, Hawkins and Willis were old-school throwbacks.
The two were three-star recruits who stayed at UK four seasons and developed into contributors. Until North Carolina’s Luke Maye abruptly ended things, both Willis and Hawkins were playing the best basketball of their Wildcats careers down the stretch of their senior seasons.
Hawkins seemingly spent his entire time in Lexington not looking comfortable on offense. However, Kentucky’s 2013 Mr. Basketball found his groove in his final weeks as a Wildcat.
The 6-foot guard had 14 points in Kentucky’s SEC Tournament finals win over Arkansas. In four NCAA Tournament games, he hit 12-of-17 shots and 7-of-11 three-point tries. Of his 293 UK career points, 49 came in his final five games.
When Kentucky was struggling to score against Wichita State in the round of 32, Hawkins’ seven points in the first half stabilized the Cats.
“It let me know I’m able to play at a high level against elite opponents,” Hawkins said of his play Sunday. “North Carolina is a great team. I feel like I played pretty well against them.”
Willis barely played (116 minutes combined) for his first two years at UK. Midway through his junior season in 2015-16 he carved out a role as a “stretch four,” a 6-9 forward with a deft three-point stroke.
Late this year, the Bullitt East product morphed into far more than a shooter. In his final NCAA Tournament, Willis produced 31 points, 29 rebounds, 10 assists, five blocked shots and five steals.
Playing in the probing glare that is UK basketball tested him, Willis said.
“But, it’s something, you grow as a man,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot, both basketball standpoints and just growing up as a young adult.”
With Hawkins and Willis departing, redshirt sophomore walk-on Dillon Pulliam (Harrison County) is the only player remaining on the UK roster who lists a Kentucky hometown.
It appears 2006-07 was the prior season when homegrown, scholarship talent had the least presence on a Wildcats’ roster.
In Tubby Smith’s final year as Cats coach, the sole scholarship Kentuckian was Scott County product Jared Carter. The 7-foot-2 Carter played in only three games before a shoulder injury sidelined him. He scored one point for the season.
In the big picture, I don’t think UK basketball should have any kind of in-state quota. John Calipari and Co. should not offer a scholarship to a player from Kentucky for next year just to have one.
I do think the “experience” of Wildcats hoops is better when there are homegrown players capable of playing up to UK’s standard.
At the end of 2016-17, Hawkins and Willis were consistently doing that.
“For Kentucky kids, that just meant everything,” Willis said.