COLUMBIA, S.C. — Consider this the first of a two-part reaction to Kentucky basketball’s strange night at South Carolina on Tuesday. The second part will be much more optimistic — promise — but first we must sift through the wreckage of Gamecocks 76, Wildcats 68.
It really takes some doing to turn the triumphant debut of 5-star freshman Jarred Vanderbilt and a 14-point second-half lead into a total disaster (and defeat). But by golly, these UK freshmen did it.
“This is another example that we don’t know how to close out games,” said freshman Kevin Knox, who had 21 points and 8 rebounds but launched eight 3-pointers and only made one.
Knox knew this team was living dangerously at the end of the Texas A&M and Vanderbilt games last week, and it finally bit them.
“Coach [John Calipari] was trying to get us to make winning plays down the stretch and we weren’t doing what he was asking for,” he said. “We were trying to do our own thing and you see what happened.”
The 18th-ranked Wildcats actually led by 14 three different times after intermission, the last coming at 57-43 with 11 minutes, 34 seconds to go. Then they were outscored 33-11 the rest of the way. But how does a collapse like that happen?
A little something like this: PJ Washington throws an awful, intercepted cross-court pass and Hamidou Diallo commits a pointless intentional foul for his fourth of the game, triggering a snowball of foul trouble and boneheaded gaffes that would bury Kentucky (14-4, 4-2 SEC).
Calipari remembers Diallo yelping: “I didn’t do it!”
“You pulled the guy’s shirt out of his pants, so don’t say that. You did it,” Calipari said.
And here comes the avalanche: Wenyen Gabriel’s fourth foul at the 10:13 mark, Sacha Killeya-Jones’ fourth at 9:19, Gabriel’s fifth at 7:21, Nick Richard’s fourth and fifth at 4:38 and 2:47.
“I’ve never seen so many dumb fouls,” Calipari said.
All told, six of eight available scholarship players finished with at least four fouls — including three foul-outs — and the 32 team fouls were the Wildcats’ most in a regulation game since 1997.
“That was tough for us because we had to stay in that zone [defense] and they were kind of picking at it, throwing it inside, and we couldn’t really do much because we couldn’t foul,” Knox said after UK gave up 27 points to South Carolina forward Chris Silva. “Our point guard had four fouls and Hami had four fouls, so we really couldn’t pressure the ball and play man. I think that kind of changed the game.”
Yeah, sort of. And it also hurt that starting point guard Quade Green missed his third straight game with a back injury and the usually spectacular Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seemed both exhausted — he played 39 minutes in both games last week — and declawed by early offensive fouls.
Still, the Wildcats should’ve won Tuesday night.
But after shooting better than 50 percent to build that 14-point lead, they made just 3 of 14 shots the rest of the way and did not make a single field goal in the final 6:12. That included a bricked put-back dunk by Richards that would’ve given Kentucky a 7-point lead with 4:47 remaining. Instead, the game was tied 45 seconds later.
Diallo missed a pair of free throws with the game tied at the 3:46 mark, from which point the Cats sank just 3 of 8 from the line.
“They looked like a bunch of freshmen playing — first time this year,” Calipari said. “This started in shootaround today, where you’ve got a bunch of guys that don’t know that … going through the motions or not paying attention or not being focused guarantees what happens when the game is in the crunch.
“Hopefully — I hate to say it — you’ve just got to take some losses to get some guys to start listening.”
There were several positive signs for Kentucky before the implosion, such as Richards’ dozen points after a prolonged slump and Knox’s early attacks of the basket. And then there was Vanderbilt’s 6 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 block in a tantalizing 14-minute debut. But all of that is for Part II of this post mortem.
We mustn’t ignore some obvious alarm bells that went off (again) in the final minutes against the Gamecocks.
“Instead of getting [the lead] to 20 and taking the win and going home, next thing you know we’re trying to do our own thing and they get back into it — we’re not listening, people trying to get their own baskets,” Knox said.
“We weren’t running none of the plays, weren’t playing no defense, weren’t listening to nothing the coaches were saying. [But] we got all freshmen and it’s a learning experience for us. We’re going to need it down the stretch in March Madness.”
Or, more immediately, Saturday at home against Florida.