UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Crunch time confounds Cats again

Vanderbilt's John Jenkins, who scored a career-high 32 points, blocked a shot by DeAndre Liggins.
Vanderbilt's John Jenkins, who scored a career-high 32 points, blocked a shot by DeAndre Liggins.

NASHVILLE — You can talk all you want about toughness and displaying a will to win.

You can reach all you want into your motivational bag of tricks and pull out the George Jetson treadmills and the heavy boxing bags.

In the end, however, when the basketball game is on the line, it's more about execution than it is elocution.

This year, for whatever reason, this young Kentucky team is learning exactly that.

Oh, after UK dropped an 81-77 decision on Saturday at Memorial Gym to the Vanderbilt Commodores, John Calipari argued that his Cats did in fact execute well late, that it buried a pair of three-pointers in the final 1:17 to cut a six-point Vanderbilt lead to two.

"I liked our execution down the stretch," said the coach.

But where Kentucky lost its seventh game of the season and its fifth conference game — its fifth conference road game in six tries — was in the five possessions after the score was tied 66-66 with 5:02 left.

"We had four turnovers in the last five minutes," said freshman forward Terrence Jones. "That was the difference."

A Brandon Knight half-lob/half-shot went off Jones' hands. DeAndre Liggins threw an errant bounce pass to Josh Harrellson, who thought Liggins was going to shoot. After Jones scored on an old-fashioned three-point play, Liggins turned it over on another bad pass. Then Jones lost control of the ball and turned it over to the 'Dores.

In that key stretch, Kentucky scored three points.

Vanderbilt scored nine.

"We needed stops," said Calipari, whose team couldn't find a way to get them.

Give the Cats credit. They fought to the end. Darius Miller battled groin trouble. Liggins battled foul trouble, partly of his own making after picking up a technical foul. They could do next to nothing with Vandy's John Jenkins, the SEC's leading scorer, who scorched the nets for 32 points. And still, the Cats had a chance to win.

But then we've seen variations of that before, with the same outcome.

This year, Kentucky is 0-5 in games decided by four points or less. Last year, using the same stat, the Cats were 5-0.

This isn't last year, of course. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton and Patrick Patterson are all in the pros. The Cats still do not have a veteran leader like Patterson, or maybe even a leader, like they did a year ago when they rode that 35-3 locomotive.

As for the program leader, surely there are those who say the string of white-knuckle losses proves Calipari is the prototypical great recruiter who can't X-and-O. His teams were so dominant at Memphis, his first Kentucky team was so dominant, goes the argument, Calipari didn't have to coach.

Well, in his last three years at Memphis, Calipari was 9-2 in games decided by five points or less. He was 2-2 in overtime games. You can't forge that sort of record without some late-game execution.

You can't be 17-7 this season, however, without cracking some at crunch time. Be it his team's youth, its lack of leadership, or purely bad luck, Cal hasn't been able to this edition over the late-game hump.

This is a team that has lost five conference games by a grand total of 17 points. But when you commit just four turnovers in 35 minutes, then commit four in a span of nearly 150 seconds with the decision in the balance, you end up explaining defeat.

Sitting in the media interview room at Memorial Gym, Cal spun positive. He said his team made strides. He said Vanderbilt is a hard place to play. He said he thought the Commodores played great.

"I'm going to be honest," said the coach, "we didn't play that bad."

Kentucky fans aren't going to see it that way. Their GPS sees a Ten-Loss Cal destination straight ahead.

And, to be sure, all that Calipari coaching/motivational stuff — the talk about toughness; the emphasis on a will to win; the drills toward that end — is important.

In the end, however, you still have to execute.

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