Reid Travis on Kentucky’s Elite Eight loss: ‘It didn’t feel real’
Of course, Kentucky’s final game of 2018-19 went into overtime. The season seemed to contain extra everything. Extra highs (victories over North Carolina, Louisville and No. 1 Tennessee). Extra lows (crushing loss to Duke, injuries to Reid Travis and PJ Washington). Extraordinary individual performances by friend (Washington) and foe (Bubba Parham of VMI).
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Even one prevailing storyline was not enough to capture this Kentucky basketball team.
The season began with the presumption that Kentucky had hit the Goldilocks zone with experience (Washington, Travis) and talented freshmen (Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro).
Then came opening night. Absent much veteran presence, Duke’s highly touted freshmen routed Kentucky 118-84. A smart aleck might have asked: How long will it take Cats fans to cry out in full second-guess indignation, “Why did Kentucky move away from a near total reliance on freshmen in order to follow Villanova’s example of relying on experience?!
Then the season’s final game turned this logic on its head. Auburn’s experienced guards got the better of Kentucky’s freshman guards. Experience seemed to make a critical difference in Auburn’s 77-71 overtime victory. Auburn’s Jared Harper (a junior) and Bryce Brown (a senior) combined for 50 points. UK freshman point guard Ashton Hagans committed seven turnovers. Freshman scorers Herro, Johnson and Immanuel Quickley combined to make nine of 30 shots (two of 13 from three-point range).
Memorable moments abounded this season.
The most stunning came against Duke on opening night. At the first television timeout of the second half, more than a few people wearing Kentucky blue walked up the aisles toward the exits. At the time, Duke led 72-47.
A much larger number of fans — think the long lines to cast ballots in the mid-term election earlier in the day — walked away at the second TV timeout. UK trailed 91-58 with 11:02 left.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas saw the loss to Duke having a long-lasting effect. For one thing, it shattered an aura of near invincibility created during a series of exhibition games in August (2018-19 was literally extra long).
“They had their entire foundation shaken by their first result,” Bilas said in November. “So they go in and get blown out. That was a confidence shaker, and I happen to think they’re still recovering. I think it totally shook their confidence individually and collectively.
“It leaves a scar. … Confidence is a funny thing. It’s hard to build up, and then it’s easy for it to get rocked.”
It was during this recovery period that Parham, a 5-foot-11 sophomore, introduced himself to the Big Blue Nation. His 10 three-point baskets were one shy of a Rupp Arena record for a visiting player and made Kentucky’s 92-82 victory over VMI memorable.
“He was looking like (Steph) Curry out there tonight,” Quickley said of Parham after the game.
Other extras during the pre-conference schedule included Johnson’s basket from near half-court to send the game against Seton Hall into overtime and Hagans’ eight steals against North Carolina equaling Rajon Rondo’s UK record.
The thrills and chills continued into Southeastern Conference play. On Jan. 19, Auburn rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit to take the lead before Kentucky won 82-80.
“They’re better than last year,” Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said of the Cats. “And I think they are going to have a really good year. I think they are playing with a purpose. They value possessions more. They get good looks, and they have a good inside-outside game.”
Ten days later, Kentucky buried Vanderbilt in a first-half avalanche that resulted in a 45-15 halftime lead.
Even the referees got involved in the UK season’s over-the-top storyline. Because they missed a basketball interference call on Kavell Bigby-Williams, LSU beat Kentucky 73-71. The Tigers won the SEC regular-season championship by one game over Kentucky and Tennessee.
Speaking of which, Kentucky and Tennessee staged a compelling three-act basketball drama starring top-10 teams. Act I: No. 5 UK routed No. 1 Tennessee, which was the fifth top-ranked team to play Kentucky in Rupp Arena. Act II: No. 7 Tennessee routed No. 4 Kentucky. Act III: No. 8 Tennessee beat No. 4 Kentucky in an SEC Tournament semifinal that had fans emotionally involved for 40 minutes.
The NCAA Tournament brought more head-scratching moments. Wofford’s Fletcher Magee missed all 12 of his three-point shots against UK. Two days earlier, he set an NCAA record for three-point baskets in a career.
Then Auburn — playing without its leading front-court player, Chuma Okeke — beat Kentucky in the Midwest Region finals despite making only seven of 23 three-point shots.
In a postgame UK locker room that featured teary eyes and bowed heads, Washington tried to capture the Duke-to-Auburn sweep of the season.
“We came a long way in such a short time,” UK’s star forward said. “We had a lot of work. Everybody bought into it. Nobody complained about it. Everybody stood up for each other and wanted it for each other.”