Down the stretch, there were enough off-balance, double-pump threes and halfcourt heaves to make a college basketball fan believe Christmas had come early to Madison Square Garden on Saturday afternoon.
It was the shots the Cats themselves failed to make in an agonizing 10-minute stretch way, way back in the first half that sent John Calipari’s club to its first loss in its last eight games, its first since that opening-night(mare) demolition at the hands of Duke.
“We missed a lot of shots we can’t afford to miss,” said Calipari afterward.
When sophomore forward PJ Washington jammed home an assist from freshman guard Ashton Hagans, Kentucky led the host Pirates 9-4 with 16:54 to go in the first half. Alas, it would be another 10 minutes and 48 seconds before the Cats saw through the ball fall through the nets on a field-goal attempt — Reid Travis muscling home the start of an old-fashioned three-point play at the 6:06 mark.
That Kentucky owned a 19-16 lead when Travis sank the foul shot was either a Christmas miracle or some dreadful offense from Kevin Willard’s Pirates. Take your pick. But UK’s 31-25 halftime lead could’ve/should’ve been more. The door was left open.
Seton Hall’s Myles Powell walked right through it. After a slow start, the 6-foot-2 junior guard, who entered the game having taken nearly twice as many shots as any other Pirate, got it going to the tune of 22 second-half points. Suddenly, Seton Hall led 49-46. And then 54-53. And later 70-67 when Powell hit a ridiculous, falling, double-clutch three from the left wing with 1.5 seconds left.
UK’s Keldon Johnson bought the Cats another five minutes by draining a midcourt buzzer-beater. So after mistakenly thinking it had won the game in regulation, Seton Hall won it in overtime, thanks to Cale’s three.
“I told them after the game, ‘We fought,’” Calipari said. “That was good.”
What isn’t so good is that UK is now 7-0 inside the friendly confines of Rupp Arena and 0-2 outside of it — losing by 34 to Duke and by one to Seton Hall, which had lost to visiting Louisville 70-65 just one week before.
A media person asked Willard, “How would you compare Louisville and Kentucky?”
“I think Kentucky is much more physical, have a much more physical presence inside,” said the coach. “I think Louisville shoots the basketball much better. I don’t think it’s close.”
There’s a recurrent theme to UK’s recent losses, dating back to last season. During the Cats’ four-game February losing streak last year, the Cats went 2-for-20, 3-for-14, 6-for-15 and 3-for-14 from three-point range. In that NCAA Sweet 16 loss to Kansas State, UK bricked nine of a dozen three-point shots.
In the eye of the tsunami that was Duke, UK went four of 17 from three. Saturday? The Cats were just five of 20. One of the five was Johnson’s answered prayer. Otherwise, he was one of five. Fellow freshman Tyler Herro missed all six of his three-point attempts.
“Most of them, I don’t think anybody was near him,” Calipari said.
So how good is Seton Hall? The Pirates are now 6-3 with losses to Nebraska, Saint Louis and U of L. They lost four seniors off an NCAA Tournament team last season. Willard joked that’s probably why Kentucky scheduled the game. “We’ve been known to do the same,” said the coach with a grin.
How good is Kentucky? It’s still way too soon to draw definitive conclusions, but Calipari isn’t sandbagging when he says the Cats have a ways to go. He praised his team’s fight on Saturday. Because of that, he said he wasn’t discouraged “in any way.”
Effort is essential, but soon enough these young Cats will have to execute. Long droughts are tough to survive. That’s the lesson the Cats should take back from the Big Apple.