The Music City is normally joyful for the Kentucky basketball team, but the Wildcats left Nashville singing the blues. Like a sad break-up song, this season has mercifully come to an end 72-71 to Mississippi State in the opening game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Kentucky came out and played the first 25 minutes of the game like it was sleepwalking and stuck in quicksand falling behind by as many as 15 points. Then Dontaie Allen began lighting up from long range and the Wildcats again found the fight they have displayed since the first of the year.
But like so many games this year that was followed by an abysmal final four minutes of the game where they mustered just two points in the closing 4:28 that allowed the Bulldogs to fight back. It wasn’t enough to hold on and the Wildcats exited the tournament and in all respects the end of their season.
Kentucky basketball can’t finish off ferocious rally once again
Even so, it wasn’t short on drama as it appeared this team was drowning from the opening tip and expended so much energy just trying to tread water. They got their heads above water to keep Mississippi State in their sights, but couldn’t make much headway closing the gap.
When they finally made up ground and eventually overtook the Bulldogs with what seemed like hurricane-force winds, it was either fright or exhaustion that saw them go under again for good with just 7.1 seconds to play.
The Wildcats’ newfound energy seemed unstoppable as they quickly erased the deficit behind Dontaie Allen who kept pumping life into his team.
Keion Brooks made a pair of free throws to finally draw even at 62-62 which was the first time since it was 5-5. Allen canned his fifth 3-pointer of the half giving his team the lead for the first time at 65-64.
But glancing at the clock that read 4:28 to play and Kentucky having pushed its advantage to 71-66 by draining 11 of 24 from behind the arc the Wildcats seemed in control having outscored Mississippi State 35-15 over the last 13:15. That came as Devin Askew threw up a prayer that Lance Ware corraled and found Davion Mintz for a three-pointer.
As the clock slipped under 4 minutes to play Kentucky fans knew better than to hold their breath as this team had run out of air countless times this season. And such was the case today as well.
Iverson Molinar responded with consecutive threes to retake the lead, but Olivier Sarr’s backed down into the lane and swished in a left-handed baby hook and Kentucky was back in front with under a minute to play.
Without any timeouts to set up a final shot Molinar headed toward the basket and drew a foul on Isaiah Jackson and his foul shots iced the win.
Kentucky had one last-ditch effort going the length of the floor by Mintz, who found Allen on the right elbow. But the former Kentucky Mr. Basketball couldn’t knock down the winner instead watched as it bounced off the back of the rim.
Allen was asked about the final shot and the chance it had.
“I mean, you can’t really ask for a better shot, especially from someone like me that has confidence in myself. I had it lined up straight. It just hit the back end, so…I don’t know. I’ll live with that. It was a good shot.”
A dejected group of Wildcats headed for the lockerroom climaxing a season of agonizing defeats, injuries, uncertainty, and frustration.
Still while many will be quick to judge this team solely on its record and they won’t have names like the “unforgettable’s”, or “untouchables” it’s the fight, determination, and never quit attitude that should define who they were.
Coach John Calipari said after the game to the media what it meant for his team to fight to the end.
My teams historically played like if they lost, they were going to the electric chair. This team did not. Times we did. But maybe physically we weren’t capable of that. But you know what, here is what I would say. For them to play how they started that game, then to play the second half the way they played, says something about them. They never quit on anything. They didn’t quit one time this year.
Finishing 9-16 on the year is not something Kentucky fans are used to seeing or believing much less a first-game exit in the SEC tournament where they have 31 titles. It also marks the Wildcats’ first losing season since going 13-19 in the 1988-89 season.
In a season of historical firsts and worsts, the season concluded with a loss where they failed to make the quarterfinals.
The Wildcats have played in 161 SEC Tournament games all-time (134-27), and while they appeared to be headed for just their eighth defeat by double digits, they rallied together and once again put themselves in a position to win.
This squad is the first team in school history to have 4 one-point losses in a single season, Notre Dame, Georgia, Arkansas, and Mississippi State.