Kentucky Basketball: Glimmer of hope turns to complete disaster once again

Kentucky Wildcats forward Jacob Toppin (Credit: Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)
Kentucky Wildcats forward Jacob Toppin (Credit: Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports) /

528. Final. 82. 534. 71

Kentucky basketball’s normal 4-minute collapse turned into a 12-minute meltdown

The Kentucky basketball team normally wilts in the final four minutes of games, but Saturday against Tennessee it was a monumental 12-minute one that saw Tennessee take a tie game and completely run Kentucky out of Rupp Arena 82-71.

This Kentucky basketball season is reminiscent of the “Wizard of Oz” storyline with the characters trying to find the wizard to ask for a heart, courage, brain and a way home.

Except this Wildcat team appears it won’t be able to find the first three and a way home appears to be just getting this forgetful season to a merciful close.

The Wicked Witch seems to have a spell cast that coach John Calipari has no magic elixir for.

Even the good witch who says “there’s no place home” can’t conjure up a happy place in Rupp Arena.

There has never been a solid team heartbeat all year for Kentucky, just different valves that bring momentary life to them.

Against Tennessee, it was Keion Brooks who had all the blood pumping erupting for a career-high 23 points and 11 rebounds. Olivier Sarr stayed out of foul trouble for the most part and added 14 points and five rebounds of life and even Devin Askew found his long lost mojo with 14 points, 5 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

But Isaiah Jackson, Davion Mintz, and Dontaie Allen contributed a combined 11 points and Brandon Boston a measly six.

Courage means to fight through adversity and rise to the challenge of closing out games and not playing scared just hoping to win, playing not to lose, and not have that blank stare in your eye.

Against the Vols like other teams, they had them on the ropes, playing well for 28 minutes but then you could see that look of nerves and confusion start to percolate and the panic eruption was imminent.

Kentucky built a 58-48 lead as the clock struck 12 minutes to play and what resulted was a hot mess uninspired mess the rest of the way. As Tennessee roared to life the Wildcats relapsed.

Just where their heads have been through nearly every game is a mystery. The brain seems to switch off and apparently they forget everything they work on in practice.

Every post-game and in every huddle it appears Calipari has the same question over and over and over again.

“Why did you do that?”

From moving screens, passed up shots, bad shots, air balls, not knowing where they are supposed to be it’s just mindblowing.

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes is simply owning Calipari. He has now beaten Kentucky three times in Rupp Arena while at Tennessee and 8-5 against Calipari overall.

The Wildcats are 3-6 in their last 9 games against Tennessee, their worst record in a 9-game span against Tennessee since February 17, 1979, to January 31, 983 with the same record.

That was even with Tennessee in foul trouble all night and big man John Fulkerson playing just 10 minutes and not scoring a point as did Santigo Vescovi netting three points.

But then there were freshman Keon Johnson and Jordan Springer combining for 50 points for the Vols. Calipari was asked about them postgame.

"“They bullied us, and they are freshman. They were the best two guards are on the court, whether they are freshmen, seniors, sophomores, whatever, they were the best two. But again, they were best two because they were physical and they bullied us."

It truly must be getting hard for Brooks to keep stepping up to represent the team both on the court and in the press conferences with the media.

Brooks was simply amazing to watch and left it all on the court for the Wildcats. He is the first Kentucky player to have at least 23 points and 11 rebounds against Tennessee since Reggie Hanson on February 13th, 1991 (28 points, 12 rebounds).

Brooks as usual had to field the same questions after the game from the media and how he finds something positive.

"“No, we’ve lost so much, we have the same conversations over and over again; and still not winning games like we should be. There is some value for our team, it gives us an experience to not ever feel this way again. Future teammates, future teams know that you have to do everything you can to not have that happen again.”"

Unfortunately, as Calipari noted after the game the rest of the team doesn’t seem to play with that same fire.

"“I thought he was great today. Not only did he score, he rebounded, and he was above the rim. We have some other guys that have been big-time rebounders for us. I don’t know if the game was rough, but they wouldn’t go after balls, not even attempt. He did. And yes, we just went right at him and just said create. Now the only thing that happened late is they crowded him, and he threw it out, and he was begging guys to shoot balls. And you know, he was in the huddle saying it, “Shoot the ball.”"

Calipari also noted his team needed one guy on the perimeter to make shots and no one did along with ill-timed mental mistakes.

"But at the end of the day, they have to get on the court and perform. And they have to be strong with the ball. You cannot turn it over in critical times. Did we do it again today? Yes, we did it again today…Look, we’re not that far off. We just played three ranked teams and we had a chance to beat them all. And we break down at critical times. Do I have the wrong guys in? I made some changes, and the guys that went in didn’t make any shots, turned it over. I mean, we’re trying everything we can……Where, again, we’ve got to get guys, when you’re not playing well, what do you do to help us win? Do you do anything to help us win? Again, moving screens. I’ve got to watch the tape. Critical. That’s, like, the game. The game changed. You need to watch, and see, did he move, if he did, why would you? Why would you do that in that situation?"

This is the 2nd Kentucky team in school history to have 3 separate losing streaks of at least 3 games in the same season (1926-1927)

Kentucky is 17-2  against Tennessee at Rupp Arena when they lead by at least 8 points at halftime. That was perfect until last year and this year. Kentucky led by 17 last year and allowed Tennessee to come back and win behind Fulkerson’s 27 points.

A solid first-half performance

Kentucky put on probably the strongest half of the season forcing Tennessee into committing 15 fouls including six players with 2 fouls each.  That allowed Kentucky to go to the foul line where they cashed in on 13 of 15. Kentucky didn’t commit their seventh until late in the half sending the Vols to the line twice where they made 2 of 3.

Askew knocked down his first three-pointer since January 12 against Alabama.

Kentucky didn’t commit its first turnover until 6:59 left on an offensive foul which was very encouraging. Then they finished the half on a 7-0 run to close out the half and 12-2 over the last 6:37 allowing them to push the lead to 42-38.

The Wildcats scored the most points that Tennessee had given up in the first half this season.

The second half comes unraveled

The second half started shaky for both teams but Kentucky managed to hang on to their lead as Brooks continued his stellar play, but the rest of the team turned it over five times in the first five minutes.

Then Brooks kept heating up and a three-pointer followed by a steal by Askew and assist to Boston for a slam dunk pushed the lead to 58-48 bringing Rupp Arena to its feet with 12:00 left.

And as quickly as the lead ballooned it was deflated even faster.

Tennessee rallied back on a 12-0 run taking the lead at 60-58 with 8:15 to play.

With 5:21 to play Tennessee was on a 20-6 run getting a 72-64 lead and the rest was history.

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