John Clay

Once a Final Four staple, Kentucky falls one game short one more time

There was a time when you almost took it for granted.

Four of his first six years, practically like clockwork, John Calipari coached his Kentucky Wildcats to college basketball’s Final Four. In a magical five-year stretch, the Cats reached the sport’s holy grail nearly every season — 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015. When you thought Final Four, you thought Kentucky.

But it’s not that easy. Not by a longshot. (Ask Duke.) That kind of magic doesn’t last forever and for the second time in three years, just when it appeared Kentucky was ready for a Final Four reunion, Cal’s Cats came up short, oh so painfully short. North Carolina played the 2017 spoiler. Sunday, it was Bruce Pearl and Auburn defeating UK 77-71 in overtime in the Midwest Region finals of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at the Sprint Center to punch a ticket to Minneapolis.

Yes, that’s the same Auburn that UK had already beaten twice this season, including a 27-point drubbing in Rupp Arena just last month. Yes, that’s the same Auburn that lost its best front-court player, Chuma Okeke, to a torn ACL only two days before. And, yes, that’s No. 5 seed Auburn compared to Kentucky’s No. 2 seed.

In fact, this was the second straight season the Cats lost to a higher seed, having lost to No. 9 seed Kansas State as a No. 5 seed in the South Region semifinals last season in Atlanta. “It doesn’t seem real,” admitted senior Reid Travis on Sunday.

The way Auburn did it didn’t seem real. Pearl’s Tigers had been the tournament’s mad bombers, beating college basketball blue bloods Kansas and North Carolina by hitting three-point shots from nearly every direction. Making just seven of 23 threes on Sunday, Auburn changed direction, taking advantage of Kentucky’s overplaying defense by sending speedy point guard Jared Harper to the rim, where he either scored or kicked to partner in crime Bryce Brown. Harper scored 26 points. Brown, who was a prefect five of five from the floor, scored 24.

Meanwhile, at the other end, Kentucky was busy kicking away chances. There’s a reason Auburn entered the game as the nation’s best team at forcing turnovers. UK committed 14. Half belonged to point guard Ashton Hagans. “I let the guys down,” he said afterward, his eye sporting a red spot from an in-game poke.

A 74.3 percent foul-shooting team on the season, the Cats were just 12 of 21 for 57.1 percent — yikes — on Sunday. And after making 11 of 24 threes in the whipping of Auburn in the teams’ last meeting, UK was 5-for-21 behind the line this time. Immanuel Quickley (1-for-6), Tyler Herro (1-for-5) and Hagans (1-for-4) were a combined 3-for-15.

“We got outplayed, got outcoached and still had a chance to win,” lamented Calipari afterward. “I thought we were going to win the game the whole way until one or two plays in overtime. Never entered my mind we weren’t going to win the game.”

The same could probably be said of his fan base. Kentucky was the higher seed. Auburn was missing arguably its best player. And not so long ago the Final Four and Kentucky were joined at the hip. There will be renewed hand-wringing over the Calipari one-and-done methodology, but we’ll leave that for another day, when perhaps cooler heads prevail. Perhaps.

Let’s be honest, you need the ball to bounce your way in tournament play. The 2011 Cats pulled a pair of regional upsets to reach the Final Four. The 2014 Cats rode an amazing string of Aaron Harrison game-winners to crash the national title game. Now, the bounces are going the other way. Two years ago, it was North Carolina’s Luke Maye who hit the buzzer-beater in the South Region finals. Saturday, UK’s shots rimmed out as Auburn’s bounced in.

“I felt like they wanted it more,” said Washington, his head hanging after a heroic 28-point performance in which he played through the pain in his sprained left foot. Indeed, a confident Auburn was a team on a mission, one that wanted badly to reach the school’s first Final Four.

The Tigers should enjoy it. As Kentucky can now tell you, getting there is the farthest thing from a sure thing.

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