In some ways, the Kentucky Wildcats did everything they needed to win on the road at Arkansas. They fought back all night. They out rebounded the Razorbacks 50-32. They shot a blazing 68.4% in the first half yet still trailed. For a poor three-point shooting team, they twice tied the game with clutch three pointers. Yet it was all for naught as three Wildcats watched a desperation Arkansas three pointer hang in the air above the rim as Michael Qualls slammed it home and beat the clock for the 87-85 overtime victory.
And like that, the Louisville win did not matter anymore and Kentucky was once again at a crossroads, struggling with a familiar inability to not be able to close games out on the road.
And the Bud Walton Arena has been John Calipari’s own pit of horrors as he dropped to 0-3 there as coach of the Wildcats.
That does not mean the season is over however. In 2011, Kentucky lost in a similar maddening fashion at Arkansas, falling 77-76 in overtime to an Arkansas team they should have beaten. That team managed to find themselves and made the Final Four.
Last year, the Wildcats were handled 73-60 and thoroughly dominated. Calipari’s charges could not recover and ended up being swept out of the NIT in humiliating fashion to Robert Morris.
Where does this team finish after losing at Arkansas?
I say this team is more similar to the 2011 team than last years and it is not even up for debate. Kentucky showed more fight and effort last night than any one game during the 2012-13 season and instead of the numb, “oh well” expressions that last years team gave, this years version of the Wildcats were mad and ready to keep fighting.
Aaron Harrison even mixed it up with a fan afterwards and had to be separated by Coach Antigua. Make no mistake. This is not 2012-13 all over again. This is a new breed of Wildcats and if not for an ever so slight lapse of judgement where three Wildcats watched a basketball dangle in the air, we would be talking a top ten ranking.
Make no mistake, this is a game that Kentucky should have won. And while I am not going to blame the loss on the officials, you get an ugly, grind it out affair when you have 60 fouls in a game or one every 45 seconds, it is not fair to either team. It’s a shame when the officials change the ebb and flow of a game and judging by the finish, we could have been treated to a gem of a game with the two highest scoring teams in the SEC.
Bad calls were plentiful on both sides however and Arkansas took advantage of the foul plagued game by hitting 70.7% of their free throws as opposed to Kentucky’s 65%. Kentucky left 14 points bouncing off the rim at Bud Walton. If Kentucky can shoot a respectable 70%, that is two more points and we would be headed to another overtime at worst.
To be honest, I can’t be too dismayed over this loss. I keep thinking back to another bizarre ending in which a fluke shot stole a victory on the road. And that was at Indiana in 2011 when Christian Watford’s desperation prayer from three-point range was answered. That Kentucky team responded by winning the 2012 National Title.
The 2011 team rebounded from their Arkansas setback by winning the next ten games in a row.
Look for a similar run from this version of the Wildcats as UK will get some Rupp Arena games against Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Georgia. Then we get to see if the lessons from Bud Walton were learned as they close out the month at LSU.
I have no doubt that this Wildcat team will learn the lessons from last night and make a serious run for the SEC Title and even a two to three seed in the NCAA Tournament. We saw so much that was good and improved in last night’s game but you can win by losing and this was an example.
Kentucky got their wake up call and are ready now.