- Sunday, March 19 2006 -
NCAA Washington D.C. Regional Second Round (at Philadelphia, PA)
Kentucky - 83 (Head Coach: Orlando Smith) - [Unranked]
Connecticut - 87 (Head Coach: Jim Calhoun) - [Ranked 2nd by AP and 2nd by ESPN/USA Today]
Halftime Score: Connecticut 43, Kentucky 31
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|Alabama-Birmingham 69 - 64|||||Miami (OH) 57 - 46|
Game Writeup - Written by Matt May; Courtesy of The Cats Pause, (All Rights Reserved)
UK's best not good enough in NCAA loss
PHILADELPHIA - Kentucky's long, trying season finally came to an end in the NCAA Tournament's second round, ironically on a day when the Cats came as close to reaching their potential as they have throughout an underachieving campaign.
In the end though, UK's best effort wasn't enough to offset the superior talent of top-seeded Connecticut. The Cats' spirited upset bid was turned back after a scintillating comeback, culminating in an 87-83 defeat in front of 20,050 fans at the Wachovia Center.
Although UK nearly erased a 13-point deficit in the final 13 minutes, the Cats failed to make several crucial plays in the final two minutes Ð a recurring theme all season Ð and UConn converted all six of its free throw attempts in the final 30 seconds to hold on for the victory and advance to the Sweet 16.
"We kept fighting," UK senior guard Ravi Moss said. "We believed we could have won. If we get a few rebounds we could have won. I'm not much into moral victories. I guess we played okay, but I'd have rather won."
In a scene that certainly brought back nightmares for those in blue, the Cats had a chance to stop the Huskies trailing by just two points with the opportunity to come down and perhaps tie or take the lead with under three minutes to go. But on three occasions Ð on two possessions Ð UConn center Hilton Armstrong tracked down rebounds off a missed free throw, leading to extra chances for the Huskies. Armstrong converted a putback to make it 78-74 on the first possession after Marcus Williams missed a chance at a three-point play, hauled in a board and got fouled after Josh Boone barely grazed rim with his two attempts, then rebounded his own miss at the line before Craig Austrie blew past UK's Rajon Rondo for a lay-up to make it 81-74 Huskies with 1:51 to play.
"It was miscommunication," sophomore guard Joe Crawford. "Some people didn't understand their job. It could have been a different outcome (if we get a rebound). We had them. Some people didn't carry out their job, didn't box out. It was frustrating."
Just one year after the Cats were arguably a single defensive rebound in overtime away from advancing past Michigan State to the Final Four, the same situation played itself out again. In a year when UK coach Tubby Smith has constantly harped about his team's toughness and physicality, it manifested itself on the court in the worst possible time.
"One of the things we dealt with all season was our toughness," Smith said. "We're not consistently tough, tenacious, warriors. It'll jump up and bite you. (Connecticut's) toughness did that. They have the maturity and discipline to make plays down the stretch."
The Cats, who fought inconsistency and lack of motivation all year, showed a heart and hustle against the Huskies that was missing throughout the year. Although another poor shooting first half (37.5 percent) forced UK to battle from behind the entire game, the Cats didn't pack it in against the overwhelming favorite to win the national title.
Instead, the Cats came out of the locker room and scored the first seven points of the second half to slash a 12-point halftime deficit to five at 43-38, forcing UConn coach Jim Calhoun to call a timeout just 1:18 into the half. UConn pushed the lead back out to 13 at 58-45 with 13:37 remaining before the Cats started to methodically cut into the lead. By the time the under eight-minute media timeout hit at 7:33, UK had closed the gap to 68-62 and were very much in the mix.
"We took every shot Kentucky gave us," Calhoun said. "Kentucky has been through an incredibly difficult season under incredible pressure. The ups and downs this team has had I think forged a very tough basketball team. Those losses gave them the fiber when we got them down eight, nine, 11, whatever it was.
"They were really, really good. They would not let us pull away. It wasn't us, it was Kentucky."
The Cats gave it one final run at the Huskies, closing the gap to just three after Randolph Morris scored on a hook shot and then hit two free throws. UK forced two missed jumpers on UConn's next two possessions, but couldn't pull closer, as Patrick Sparks Ð who finished with a UK career-high 28 points and five steals Ð missed a three-pointer and then Rondo overthrew Morris on a run out pass. UConn responded with a Denham Brown lay-in before Rondo's long three at the shot clock buzzer got UK as close as it would get at 74-72 with 3:15 remaining.
That's when the rebounds, which UK led 27-26 at the time, came back to haunt the Cats. Armstrong's three boards helped push the lead back to seven before Sparks nailed another three and Sheray Thomas scored on a lay-in off a Sparks' pass to make it 81-79 with 52.5 seconds left. The Cats never could pull even though, as Williams hit four straight free throws and then Rudy Gay made two with 3.3 seconds left to seal the deal.
"It wasn't that we weren't in position (on the free throws)," UK associate head coach David Hobbs said. "They just jumped over us. Our guys hung in there and fought. We gave ourselves an opportunity to win and that's what you hope for."
In a season full of close calls, the ending was fitting. The Cats were good, but just not good enough.
Bobby Perry has another good game, as he shoots over UCONN's Denham Brown
Patrick Sparks shoots in front of Connecticut's Marcus Williams
Randolph Morris tries to stop a shot by UCONN's Marcus Williams