And Then It Was Over: Kentucky Basketball Season Ends in Tough Loss to North Carolina

Mar 26, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard Malik Monk (5) and forward Edrice Adebayo (right) walk off the court after losing to the North Carolina Tar Heels in the finals of the South Regional of the 2017 NCAA Tournament at FedExForum. North Carolina won 75-73. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 26, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard Malik Monk (5) and forward Edrice Adebayo (right) walk off the court after losing to the North Carolina Tar Heels in the finals of the South Regional of the 2017 NCAA Tournament at FedExForum. North Carolina won 75-73. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports /

First half foul trouble, missed opportunities and questionable officiating proved too much for the Wildcats to overcome on Sunday in Memphis. Kentucky Basketball fell to North Carolina to bring the 2016-2017 season to a close.

The Cat’s season ended one game shy of the Final Four. They had a very good season, but are left to wonder what might have been. Here’s a quick look at a painful loss for Kentucky Basketball.

First Half Adversity

Carolina jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead and led the entire half. The Cats found their footing and got back into it. De’Aaron Fox scored the Wildcats’ first five points. Once again, Dominique Hawkins came off the bench to provide a huge lift. The senior from Madison Central High School led Kentucky with 10 points in the half.

One of the of the biggest moments of the half came when Fox was called for his second foul with 12:23 left. He went to the bench and didn’t return until the last few seconds of the half. The freshman had been the main man in the Cats’ postseason. The Tar Heels then went on to lead by as much as eight. That was their edge when Malik Monk picked up his second foul with 5:02 remaining and went to the bench. Derek Willis and Bam Adebayo also had two fouls in the half.

Kentucky Basketball fans’ gripes about the first half officiating weren’t so much about those fouls. What was inexplicable were several instances of over-the-back contact by Carolina in the last few minutes of the half that went uncalled. The Wildcats hung in the game with a makeshift lineup of Isaiah Briscoe, Mychal Mulder, Isaac Humphries, Wenyen Gabriel and Hawkins. That group kept the deficit at five points at the end of the half.

Optimist or Pessimist?

But at the same time, the Cats missed many makeable shots over long stretches of time. There was another egregious no-call when Fox came back in for the final possession and was man-handled by two Heels on a driving layup attempt. On one hand, Cat fans could feel fortunate with the 38-33 half time score. On the other, upset that the team could have actually been ahead, even with the foul trouble and malpractice by the men in the striped shirts.

Second Half Surge

Kentucky quickly came out after the break and took a 39-38 lead in the first two plus minutes. Carolina responded and took a 53-47 lead with 10:39 left. Then it was the Wildcats’ turn to come back, led by an unlikely star. Isaac Humphries scored eight of the Cats next 17 points. The backup big man had 12 points and five rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench.

Briscoe was also solid for the Cats all night. He had seven points, four rebounds and led the team with eight assists. Humphries’ jumper at the 5:10 mark gave Kentucky Basketball a 64-59 lead. The Final Four promised land in Phoenix appeared within grasp.

Must Read: An open letter to Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis

The Bitter End

But then Carolina countered and Kentucky went cold. The Cats didn’t score again until there were only 49 seconds left. Over that 4:21 span the Heels scored 12 straight points to take a 71-64 lead. The Wildcats missed five straight shots and added a turnover during that dreadful stretch. Two particular misses stand out from that dry spell. One was an open Willis corner three that looked good but didn’t go down. Another was an Adebayo layup attempt on which he appeared to be fouled. But there was no call and the result was a Carolina runout and two made free throws.

The last minute was a rollercoaster of momentum swings. Fox hit a three from the corner to bring the Cats within four. With Kentucky applying pressure, Carolina couldn’t inbound the ball and turned it over on a five-second violation. Monk, who had struggled the entire game, knocked in a three from the top of the key to make it 71-70 Heels with 39 seconds left. Carolina handled the pressure the next time, getting a breakaway layup to go up 73-70. Monk then hit another contested three from the almost the same spot. The game was miraculously tied 73-73 with nine second remaining.

Alas, there was just enough time left to break Big Blue hearts. Theo Pinson drove down the middle to the lane. When Kentucky’s defense converged on him, he passed out to Luke Maye. He hit an open jumper from 17 feet with only .03 left. The Cats threw the ball out of bounds trying to set up a last gasp attempt to tie or win. And that was that.

Kentucky Basketball Season Wrap Up

The Cats finished the year 32-6. They won the both the SEC regular season title and the conference tournament. They were done no favors by their NCAA tourney draw. Kentucky had to get past a seriously under-seeded Wichita State team in the second round. Then they faced perhaps the most dangerous offensive team in the country in UCLA. That Bruins squad had defeated the Cats in Rupp Arena already this season. But the Wildcats played their best game of the season to win that one. That left them to face the team most observers considered the best in the nation in North Carolina. All that just to make to the Final Four.

They fell short of their ultimate goal, but the season should still be considered a success. Along with the team accomplishments, there were great individual performances as well. Fox and Monk were a dynamic backcourt. Each contributed special games in big-time situations that will be long-remembered. Homegrown seniors Hawkins and Willis had huge moments as well.

With the Cats expected to turnover as many as eight roster spots, next year’s team will have a whole new look. This will be an even bigger makeover that what fans have been used to in the one-and done era. The Big Blue faithful will look forward to what the 2017-2018 season holds in store.