MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Isaac Humphries might’ve gone down in Kentucky lore, an Elite Eight hero, if not for the shot.
Glory swung from Kentucky’s backup center to North Carolina’s Luke Maye with a single basket — one that sent the Tar Heels to the Final Four in Phoenix and the Wildcats on a flight back to Lexington.
Humphries, unsure about his future at Kentucky just one week before, played the best game of his college career in the 75-73 loss. After playing a combined 18 minutes in Kentucky’s first three NCAA Tournament games, he logged 21 minutes — a career high — on Sunday afternoon. Humphries scored 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting while pulling down 5 rebounds.
“Can you imagine his first real opportunity to do this was in this game, and he performed? Amazing,” coach John Calipari said after the game.
Kentucky’s players, many with towels draped over their heads, walked off the FedExForum floor and into their locker room dejected. The nation’s longest winning streak was snapped with a Final Four bid within reach as Kentucky led by 5 with 5 minutes left.
The mood was predictably solemn in the Kentucky locker room, including the disposition of Humphries, but no player had more to be optimistic about than the 7-foot Australian. He was relied on by teammates and coaches in the most pressure-packed game of the season after failing to secure a significant role for much of the year.
There was an uncommon blend of failure and accomplishment around Humphries’ performance.
“I’m really happy that I could contribute,” Humphries said. “I was really happy that I could. I keep saying it, but I was really happy that I could do that for my team. Sitting here now, it’s really upsetting.”
And while Humphries had never performed so well for the Wildcats, his minutes minimized the opportunities. But that changed Sunday. Humphries said Calipari told him he would be called on to contribute against North Carolina’s big lineup.
“He always had that in him,” sophomore Isaiah Briscoe said. “It was his time. Today was his day. Coach rode with him.”
With 7:27 left in the game, Humphries snagged an offensive rebound, was fouled and hit a pair of free throws to give Kentucky a 58-57 lead. The sequence sent Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus into a screaming, fist-pumping rage of excitement.
The Cats-heavy crowd in Memphis seemed stunned to be cheering so loud for Humphries.
“Today, he did what we expected him to do all season,” freshman De’Aaron Fox said. “It’s the best game of his season. I just wish it came in a winning effort.”
Humphries, like the rest of his teammates, will now have to consider his future. One week ago, Humphries said he didn’t know what his path would be.
“I expected a different season,” Humphries said at the time. “I expected completely to not go this way, but that happens. I’m just trying to push through everything I can and do as much as I can when I get out there.”
Sunday was his time, and it’s unclear what effect it might have on his future.
“It will obviously help my confidence, but I was just trying to do what I could to help the team,” Humphries said. “It wasn’t anything about me. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to help me now.’”
Humphries, after the loss, said he would “assess every option” that he has.
Regardless of what he decides, he’ll be remembered for his breakout performance. Either the start of something new or his final game donning the blue and white.