John Clay

John Clay: A sad, sudden ending to Kentucky’s basketball season

Jamal Murray didn’t so much sit in his locker room cubicle at the Wells Fargo Arena, as he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, a Gatorade towel covering his entire head, his eyes red, his voice barely audible.

“Shots I normally make, I didn’t,” he whispered. “I didn’t make shots.”

There was disbelief in his soft voice, as if the freshman guard couldn’t really imagine that this was it, that Kentucky’s basketball season had come to such an abrupt end, stopped in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament by a 73-67 loss to Indiana in a second round game of the East Region.

Murray paused, and it looked for a minute as if he was going to say something else, but then he just couldn’t. His head lowered again. His face disappeared beneath the towel.

It was that kind of Saturday for this Kentucky basketball team at Wells Fargo Arena. Nothing seemed right or in rhythm or the way it was supposed to be. There was no flow. The nation’s No. 1 team in terms of offensive efficiency could never find a rhythm, could never find itself.

Credit Indiana. The Big 10 champs stepped to the defensive plate. They cut off any attempts UK made at establishing a post game. While Tyler Ulis played valiantly, the first-team All-American finishing with 27 points, Indiana made Murray work for every one of his 16 points. He missed eight of his nine three-point attempts. As a team, UK missed 12 of 16 threes.

“I felt like we had some open looks,” said Derek Willis, who missed his only two shots. “They just didn’t go down.”

Some Wildcats said Indiana played UK’s pick-and-roll differently and that was a factor. Others, including Ulis, dismissed that as a determining factor.

“We had defensive breakdowns,” Ulis said. “That’s where we lost the game.”

And you couldn’t help thinking back to six days before, after Kentucky had beaten Texas A&M in a overtime to win the SEC Tournament, when John Calipari, changed out of his suit and tie, predicted that his team would rise and fall with the play of his frontcourt. It plays well, UK advances. It doesn’t, UK goes home.

“That’s just the way it is,” Calipari said.

He was right, of course. Indiana’s freshman center Thomas Bryant scored 19 points. Kentucky’s trio of Alex Poythress, Skal Labissiere and Marcus Lee combined for 14.

And yet, despite five offensive fouls in the first half and six for the game and despite its inability to grab a groove, Kentucky held tightly to the rope for nearly 35 minutes. With 7:44 left, the score was tied at 50. Each team had made 19 of 45 shots for 42.2 percent. It was weird almost. Then the rope started to slip.

A possession later, Willis missed a three-pointer from his favorite spot, just to the left of the key, a spot where he’s nearly automatic. At the other end, Indiana freshman O.G. Anunoby made his 13th three-pointer of the entire season. Indiana’s lead was just 56-50 but it had the feel of fate being sealed.

In the back of our minds, we knew things had to go just right for this Kentucky team. This wasn’t last year’s overpowering edition. It wasn’t the lock down defensive team of Calipari past. Instead, it was a team that found ways to accentuate its strengths, to play well enough down the stretch to give its fans reason to believe more was in store.

But then it was over, just like that, with a loss to a border rival, one game short of the Sweet 16, something that had not happened to the previous five UK teams Calipari had taken to the tournament.

Outside the locker room, former players Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Harrison, Tayshaun Prince and Ramon Harris stood and talked. Inside, there wasn’t much talking. There were sad faces and bleary eyes and blank stares. Isaiah Briscoe sat in a chair, his legs up against the locker, just sitting, thinking.

Over at his locker, Murray had pulled the towel off his head and onto his shoulders. Someone asked about what he would remember about the fun he had playing with Ulis, with this team, especially over the final weeks.

“I’m going to miss playing basketball with these guys,” he said softly. “It’s done. Our season is done.”

There was really nothing else to say.

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