Ashton Hagans says he felt like he let the team down
A Shania Twain song — “Dance With The One That Brought You” — came to mind as John Calipari cited a key reason for Kentucky’s loss in the Midwest Region finals Sunday.
Turnovers, the UK coach said, were responsible for UK’s 77-71 overtime loss to Auburn. Point guard Ashton Hagans had a season-high seven of the team’s 14 turnovers.
Calipari chose to dance with Hagans, who played 38 minutes and 56 seconds.
“Well, you go through a whole season, and some of the stuff you have to understand is bigger than one game,” Calipari said when asked about Hagans’ struggles. “I know everybody will go nuts and say, ‘What are you talking about?’ There are times you have to let guys play through stuff, and you got to get them to change on the run. Then they understand that the only thing they’re trying to conquer is themselves.”
When asked about the mistakes, Hagans simply said, “Just had some bad turnovers.”
Immanuel Quickley was UK’s presumptive backup point guard. But …
“Immanuel couldn’t make a shot,” Calipari said of Quickley’s 1-for-6 shooting. “So he wasn’t exactly playing confidently either.”
Calipari cited several statistics that could make the case for a UK victory. The Cats outrebounded Auburn 41-37 and shot the ball better (44.3 percent to 40 percent).
“The numbers say that, boy, you should have won,” the UK coach said. “We had a few too many turnovers in inopportune times. That kind of changed the game.”
According to statistics savant Ken Pomeroy, Auburn had a decided advantage in experience. He rated Auburn as the sixth-most experienced team in college basketball. UK was No. 342.
“I’ll say this to everyone here,” Calipari said in his postgame news conference. “The hard thing when you’re coaching young kids, like really young, that when we had four days to prepare for Houston, we could really dig down and drill and drill.”
Kentucky had about 36 hours to prepare for Auburn.
“You say do not let them drive right, and you show them on tape,” Calipari said. “You go over it, but you don’t have time. They shot 15 layups right-handed today. Do not let them. The last one they just drove in and went right and shot it.”
Auburn point guard Jared Harper drove to the tying layup that sent the game into overtime.
Auburn assistant coach Steven Pearl saw experience as a factor, especially with both teams playing in an Elite Eight game for the first time.
“I told them, keep it within 10, OK?” Pearl said of timeout huddles in the first half. “In the second half, they’re going to get tight. This is big for them. They’re Kentucky. They’re expecting to beat Auburn. They’re the favorites. Keep it close.”
Auburn forward Chuma Okeke did not play. He tore an anterior cruciate ligament in Friday’s semifinal victory over North Carolina. But he contributed to the victory over UK.
Auburn cited Okeke as a inspiration.
“We talked about it all day,” Steven Pearl said. “Let’s do it for Chuma. They made a hashtag out of it. Do it for Chuma. It gave them that courage and that bravery.”
Okeke had planned to watch the game in his hotel room. But at halftime, the Auburn coaches learned that he was coming to the Sprint Center. They told the players.
“Their eyes all got big,” Pearl said. “They kind of realized what was at stake. … They Through all the pain, he was going to show up anyway to support his brothers.”
Okeke arrived at about the first television timeout of the second half. Or as Pearl said he told the team, “Hey, ‘5’ walked in.” Then Pearl smiled as he corrected himself by saying, “or rolled in.”
Okeke was in a wheelchair. After the game, the Auburn players gave Okeke the championship trophy to hold aloft.
During pregame warm-ups, Auburn guard Malik Dunbar wore a shirt with Okeke’s name and No. 5 on the back.
“Just to keep Chuma in good spirits,” Dunbar said. “We’re still here for him.”
When asked if Okeke served as a motivation for his Auburn teammates.
“Yeah, it is true,” Dunbar said. “We wish he could be out there with us. It was good to have him (in the Sprint Center) and see him smiling.”
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey attended the game. Asked how he was doing, he said he was relaxed.
Because the UK-Auburn game meant no pressure, he said. It was guaranteed that one SEC team would advance to the Final Four.