As he entered the visiting media room for the post-game news conference, John Calipari was a man in a hurry. His players were already on the bus outside. The team plane was waiting at the airport. Let’s make this quick, explained the Kentucky basketball coach. No time to waste.
“We’re trying to get out of here so we don’t get hit by this weather,” Calipari said of the predicted storms on the flight path back home.
Too late. Tuesday night in Thompson-Boling Arena, Kentucky found itself in the middle of an unexpected electrical event that swept away the lead and left it with an embarrassing 84-77 loss to the Tennessee Volunteers. All you could do was sit there and wonder, where in the world did that come from?
For the 19,295 in attendance, it was like buying one ticket to see two completely different games. The first 15 minutes, it was all blue skies and sunshine as Kentucky, the nation’s 20th-ranked team, rolled to a 21-point lead over the host and rebuilding Vols. Then all of a sudden, here came the lightning strikes, one after another after another after another, until by game’s end UK had its sixth loss of the season — and by far its worst loss of the season.
“You have to give Tennessee credit,” said Calipari, already changed into his blue casual clothes and complimenting his good friend, UT coach Rick Barnes. “We had them down 21, and they came back and beat our brains in.”
Yes, give Tennessee tons of credit. It’s also more than fair, however, to ask how in the world can this Kentucky team play so well in such a hostile environment Saturday night at Kansas — taking the No. 4 team in the nation in overtime before losing — and then lose to a Tennessee team that is now 11-11 overall and was No. 114 in the RPI?
And no, even long-time courtside observers of Kentucky basketball could not recall a game when the Cats blew a 21-point lead and lost. In 2002, Tubby Smith’s Cats led Mississippi State by 20 in Starkville and lost in overtime. It was the closest that impromptu crowd-sourcing could find.
“I’m just disappointed, when I see plays, you just can’t win making those kinds of plays,” Calipari said, pointing to two in particular.
With less five minutes to go and UK down 71-70, senior Alex Poythress got the ball in the post in good position under the basket to put the Cats back in front. Instead, Poythress sort of lost his balance and somehow lost the ball out of bounds. Shouldn’t happen.
With less than two minutes to go, Tennessee up 77-74, the Vols’ Robert Hubbs III somehow broke wide, wide open on an inbound play for an easy basket that pushed the Tennessee lead to five. Shouldn’t happen.
Let’s add another. Coming into the game, the smallish Vols were being outrebounded by an average of two rebounds per game. Kentucky was outrebounding opponents by 6.8 per game. The final stats showed Tennessee outrebounded Kentucky 37-36. Shouldn’t happen.
But then you could say “shouldn’t happen” about any game in which Kentucky leads by 21 and loses. Asked if he had ever coached a team that had suffered such a loss, Calipari remarked that, historically, when his teams “get up by 10 it’s like 102.” He’s right. Cal’s best teams have been go-for-the-jugular teams. They put their foot on the other team’s neck and press down. Hard. This team has a tendency to let up.
“We’ve got to do some soul-searching, individuals and this staff,” Calipari said. “But we are what we are right now.”
And the forecast says there’s the potential for plenty of rough weather ahead. Florida, which took apart a top 10 West Virginia team last week, comes to Rupp on Saturday. UK travels to South Carolina the following Saturday, then conference-leader Texas A&M the Saturday after that. All three of those teams are better than Tennessee, by the way.
“We’re fine,” said Calipari, though it sounded more like a wish than a prediction, and then the coach was off for the airport and another bumpy ride.