Mark Story

On verge of being UK folk hero, Isaac Humphries instead feels ‘gutted’

Part of what puts the madness into March is the unanticipated hero.

With Kentucky dueling North Carolina for a berth in the Final Four, UK was producing an emerging hero no one could have seen coming.

Before the South Regional finals, Isaac Humphries had played 294 minutes and scored 93 points all season.

Yet with UK down 57-54 inside the game’s final eight minutes, the big Australian led an unlikely charge.

In what became a 10-2 Kentucky run, Humphries scored eight points. He dropped in a layup off a nifty pass from Bam Adebayo. He cashed a pair of free throws, then drained not one but two pick-and-pop jumpers.

When the last one went in with 5:08 left to play, Kentucky had a 64-59 lead.

A heavily pro-UK crowd of 16,412 in FedExForum roared in delight.

“It felt great in the moment,” Humphries said. “I was so excited and so happy to, finally, be helping my team.”

Alas, North Carolina rewrote the script on Humphries’ Hollywood ending.

A trailing Luke Maye buried an 18-foot jumper off a kickback pass from Theo Pinson with 0.3 seconds left in the game to give the No. 1 seed Tar Heels a 75-73 victory over the No. 2 seed Wildcats.

It was an outcome fraught with historical import for both programs. Kentucky’s heartbreak came 25 years after the famous Christian Laettner buzzer-beater allowed Duke to break the hearts of The Unforgettables.

North Carolina’s winning play bore some resemblance to the one Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono (the passer) and Kris Jenkins (the shooter) used to defeat the Tar Heels at the buzzer in last season’s NCAA championship game.

Making its record 20th Final Four appearance, North Carolina (31-7) will face Oregon on Saturday in Phoenix. Kentucky ended its season 32-6.

Maye’s heroics also stole Humphries’ thunder.

In last summer’s UK pickup-game chatter, word was the 7-foot, 255-pound sophomore had the potential to be a breakthrough performer in 2016-17.

“Coming out of the summer, I was really confident,” Humphries said. “I was very excited for the season.”

Yet once this season began, Humphries just never really seemed to get going. Searching for an effective big man to spell starting center Bam Adebayo, Kentucky Coach John Calipari even tried little-used Tai Wynyard.

Such was his exasperation with Humphries.

“I don’t know what happened,” Humphries said, “but I just started to not play how I should have been. It had nothing to do with anybody else. I take all the (blame) for what happened. I lost my confidence — something just happened — and it took me a while to get back up there.”

Before Sunday, Humphries had not scored more than one field goal in a game since going 2-for-3 in UK’s win at Alabama on Feb. 11.

After Kentucky vanquished UCLA on Friday night in the round of 16, Calipari told Humphries his bulk might be needed against North Carolina’s physically formidable post players Kennedy Meeks (6-10, 260), Isaiah Hicks (6-9, 242) and Tony Bradley (6-11, 240).

“He just said it was a game I could contribute and play in,” Humphries said.

With Kentucky freshman stars De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk hampered by first-half foul trouble, Humphries and senior backup guard Dominique Hawkins kept the Cats in the game.

At halftime, Hawkins had 10 points. Humphries had four points, four rebounds and an assist. UK, in spite of teetering at times, trailed only 38-33 at the half.

For Humphries, the best moments were still to come.

His eight points in less than three minutes late in the second half put Kentucky in position to win.

“So proud of Isaac,” Calipari said. “Can you imagine his first real opportunity to do this was in this game, and he performed? Amazing.”

Carolina, alas, refused to lose.

That’s why, after an improbable bid to be an all-time Kentucky basketball folk hero, Isaac Humphries instead found himself sitting in a downcast UK locker room.

“Right now, I’m obviously gutted,” he said. “It sucks.”

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