Tyler Ulis blames defensive breakdowns
There were two seconds showing on the Wells Fargo Arena scoreboard when Tyler Ulis committed his fifth foul.
Kentucky trailed Indiana 71-67. Barring a miracle, the Wildcats season was effectively over. If, as most expect, Ulis enters the 2016 NBA Draft, his time as a Kentucky basketball player was also over.
Though he’d fouled out, Ulis lingered on the playing floor. Finally, an official walked over and told the sophomore point guard he had to go.
Was Ulis reliving his stellar two seasons in Kentucky blue? Was he thinking he’d just played his final game at UK?
“I just didn’t know I’d fouled out,” Ulis said later in a glum Kentucky locker room. “That was all.”
In spite of 27 points from Ulis, No. 5 seed Indiana ended No. 4 Kentucky’s season with a 73-67 victory in the NCAA Tournament round of 32 Saturday.
The Hoosiers (27-7) will advance to Philadelphia to play in next Friday’s East Region semifinals. Kentucky (27-9) failed to advance to the Final Four for only the third time in John Calipari’s seven seasons as UK coach.
Sparked by freshmen Thomas Bryant (19 points, 11 in the final 7:44) and senior point guard Yogi Ferrell (18 points, four assists), Indiana pulled away from a 50-50 tie with a 10-2 run.
The Hoosiers led 66-57 with 1:16 left — before Ulis tried to create one more epic moment for UK.
The 5-foot-9, 160-pounder drained a three, spun in an acrobatic layup and — inexplicably fouled by IU’s Troy Williams while attempting a three-point shot — drained three free throws to pull Kentucky back within 68-65 with 36.4 seconds left.
But, just as dreams of a Big Blue miracle perked up, Indiana’s Bryant hit the second of two foul shots with 29.7 seconds left to put the Hoosiers up two possessions.
Kentucky did not score again.
A season ago, after UK’s dreams of an undefeated national championship ended with a Final Four loss to Wisconsin, Ulis was inconsolable in the Wildcats locker room.
On Saturday night, a year older, he was more composed.
“It’s the same exact feeling — year is over,” Ulis said. “Last year, we got farther, we had a better record. But, at the end of the day, if somebody beats you, you’re done. You didn’t win the championship.”
With Kentucky’s inconsistent frontline at low ebb against Indiana — UK’s four main big men combined for only 14 total points against IU — the Wildcats’ hope for advancement fell heavily on star guards Ulis and Jamal Murray.
Indiana ran a pair of long, athletic wing men — 6-7 Troy Williams and 6-8 OG Anunoby — at Murray (16 points) and harried him into 1-for-9 three-point shooting, 7-for-18 overall.
That left Ulis carrying UK’s season on his slender back.
Asked if he thought Kentucky relied too much on him this season, Ulis said only, “No.”
Projected to go No. 26 in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft by DraftExpress.com, most expect Ulis to take the play-for-pay plunge.
“I haven’t thought about it at all,” Ulis said. “I’m just thinking about this loss.”
If Ulis does turn pro, he’ll leave Lexington as one of the most popular Kentucky players of the 21st Century. The white-hot intensity he brought to the court, his knack for making big shots and keen on-court IQ were savored by UK fans.
The fact that, at 5-9, he was good enough to be both SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year and to break John Wall’s UK single-season record for assists did not hurt.
“He’s an extension of Coach Cal out there,” Kentucky forward Derek Willis said of Ulis. “He was up in my butt about stuff. The game just means so much to him.
Added UK freshman Skal Labissiere: “Best point guard I’ve ever played with. His leadership, to get to see it from somebody who was basically my age, it was pretty impressive.”
In the Kentucky locker room Saturday night, someone asked Ulis what he thought UK senior Alex Poythress was thinking after playing his final game in Wildcats blue and white.
Ulis’ answer suggested the little point guard may, in fact, have given some thought to what he will be giving up if — when — he leaves Kentucky for the NBA.
“He’s never going to play in Rupp (Arena) again,” Ulis said of Poythress. “He’s never going to see (Kentucky’s) fan base. Once you leave this, it’s completely different. Nobody has the fan base we have here.”
Given the way Ulis wore the Kentucky uniform, that fan base assuredly did not want to him walk off the basketball floor in a Wildcats uniform for what was likely the final time.