John Clay

John Clay: Not playing ‘winning basketball,’ UK takes a Big Apple beating

Hey, this is New York City. No one’s going to give you what you want here. No one’s going to just hand it over. That’s not how it works. Not here in Gotham. You have to go after it. You have to take it. If you don’t, someone else will.

In No. 4 Kentucky’s 74-67 loss to a previously middling Ohio State at the Barclays Center on Saturday, there were several key moments when the Cats went after the basketball — be it off the glass, or on the loose, or on the floor — and somehow, some way, the ball ended up with Ohio State, and somehow, some way, the Buckeyes always seemed to make the Cats pay.

“Winning basketball,” lamented UK coach John Calipari afterward. “We’re not playing winning basketball.”

At the end of the first half, UK’s Isaiah Briscoe forces a shot off a hard drive to the basket. Out of position, Marcus Lee is called for an over-the-back foul on the rebound. Ohio State gets the ball and when freshman guard JaQuan Lyle nails a deep three just before the first-half buzzer, the Buckeyes take a 37-25 lead.

Second half, UK is on the comeback trail. Jamal Murray has gone mad, firing in threes at an epic clip, converting creative shots off the dribble. The freshman is just starting to heat up, making back-to-back threes, when Skal Labissiere can’t hold onto a defensive rebound. Ohio State claims it and kicks it out to an open Marc Loving for a three with 12:19 left.

Next possession, Murray steals an Ohio State in-bounds pass only to have the Cats turn it right back to the Buckeyes before Kentucky can even cross halfcourt. Guess the result. You got it. A.J. Harris hits a three and the Buckeyes are up 55-39.

Then when Kentucky is finally making some headway, chopping the Ohio State lead to seven points at 59-52, Lee misses a shot inside — but worse, Alex Poythress can’t hold the rebound. Calipari all but has a stroke on the UK sideline, waving his arms and punching the air furiously, while at the other end Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop scores to make it 61-52 Buckeyes.

“I mean, late there were three or four rebounds, you bring it in, we’re right there. We have our chance,” Calipari said later. “You don’t bring it in, they lay it in and it’s an and-one or whatever, you don’t have a chance to win.”

If you can stand it, here’s one last example. Labissiere misses a shot inside, the ball is batted out where a wild scramble ensues. It seems for a moment that Kentucky is going to come up with the 50-50 ball, but instead it is Thad Matta’s team that comes out of the scrum with the ball, and in a hurry. In trying to prevent a runout, UK’s Tyler Ulis is called for the intentional foul with 2:56 left. Kam Williams makes both free throws.

“These guys have just played basketball in the past,” Calipari said. “Now we’ve got to teach them how to win.”

From the opening tip, Ohio State played like the team hungry to win. Tired of being dissed and discounted, the then-5-5 Buckeyes played “with a chip on our shoulder,” said Loving, a junior.

After losing to UCLA on the West Coast, Kentucky opened on the East Coast in much the same fashion — “on our heels,” Calipari said — falling behind to the aggressor. Only when the Cats trailed by 16 did they appear to realize the clock was ticking, and even then they hitched their star to Murray’s heroics in hopes of a miracle comeback that came up short.

It doesn’t help that the same UCLA team that beat the Cats got waxed in Saturday’s opening game of the CBS Sports Classic, falling 89-76 to North Carolina, which was without its best inside player, Kennedy Meeks.

“I want them to be farther along than they are,” said Calipari afterward of his team. “But (we) are where we are right now.”

Going into the Christmas break, a week away from the Louisville game, Kentucky is a talented but young team that has been given a couple of hard early lessons. Whether it’s learned those lessons, we’ll soon find out.

Kentucky men’s basketball next five games

Dec. 26 Louisville (noon/CBS)

Jan. 2 Ole Miss (7 p.m./SEC)

Jan. 5 @LSU (9 p.m./ESPN)

Jan. 9 @Alabama (6 p.m./SEC)

Jan. 12 Mississippi State (7 p.m./ESPN)

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