MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Kentucky had been so cool about winning, so unenthusiastic in celebration two nights earlier when the Wildcats blitzed UCLA to reach the Elite Eight, that the scene in Sunday’s postgame locker room was jarring.
Point guard De’Aaron Fox was launching into a rant about how critics will say freshman-driven teams don’t really care — about each other, about winning, about anything other than their NBA draft stock — when his voice cracked and he crumbled. Fox slung an arm around fellow freshman Bam Adebayo and pulled him close.
Two future millionaires held onto each other and cried. The finality of North Carolina 75, Kentucky 73, a breathtaking battle for the last spot in the 2017 Final Four, which wasn’t decided until Luke Maye’s dagger with three-tenths of a second to go, wrecked them.
“This isn’t a locker room that looks like guys don’t care,” Fox said through sobs. “I love my brothers, man. That shot is just playing back in forth in my head. It’s going to be difficult to get over.”
Fox had shown minimal emotion on Friday night, after he lit up Lonzo Ball and UCLA for a career-high 39 points in the Sweet 16. That game mattered to him — Ball is a potential No. 1 overall pick and the Bruins had beaten UK at Rupp Arena in December — and still his postgame celebration was muted.
“We won the SEC regular-season championship, we won the SEC Tournament, but we were looking for bigger things,” Fox said. “We were winning games and coming in here looking like nothing happened. That just showed that we had bigger goals.”
"This isn't a locker room that looks like guys don't care. I love my brothers." Raw emotions. pic.twitter.com/5pW7WtruUr
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) March 27, 2017
Fox, Adebayo and their fellow freshman star, Malik Monk, a trio of projected first-rounders, assembled in pursuit of a national championship. Just get by North Carolina, a team they’d already beaten in December, and the path to a title looked promising. Through a series of upsets, Oregon, Gonzaga and South Carolina were the three other teams still standing.
If Kentucky could reach its fifth Final Four in eight seasons under coach John Calipari, the Wildcats would be favorites to win the program’s ninth NCAA championship. Anything less would be a disappointment — for a rabid-to-the-point-of-unreasonable fan base, obviously, but also as it turns out, for their young stars.
“I knew if we were ever to lose, even if it was in the championship game, last game of the season, it was going to hit me hard,” Fox said. “And especially the way we lost, that shot, with 0.3 seconds left, it’s tough to handle.”
At least Fox and the freshmen could come back if they wanted. For Kentucky’s three seniors, especially homegrown favorites Derek Willis and Dominque Hawkins, Sunday brought a sad, sudden ending.
Those two had played the best basketball of their lives over the past month — Willis attributed it to the “desperation” of a dwindling career — as if trying to wring out every ounce of energy and ability they had yet to expend in a Kentucky uniform. Hawkins was struggling to take off his blue jersey for the last time as reporters filed out of that funereal locker room Sunday.
“Devastation,” sophomore 7-footer Isaac Humphries said. “Like we had another chance, and it was just gone.”
Improbably, Humphries helped give Kentucky that chance. If not for North Carolina’s frenzied finish, he would be a Wildcats legend right now.
Humphries, who hadn’t played double-digit minutes since Jan. 31 and who’d scored a total of eight points in the previous 11 games, was the unlikeliest of almost-heroes Sunday. He scored eight points in less than two minutes — and finished with 12 points and 5 rebounds — to lead a stunning comeback that gave UK a 65-59 lead with 5:10 remaining.
Then North Carolina deployed a zone defense and the Wildcats collapsed. The Tar heels reeled off 12 unanswered points and led by seven with just 54 seconds to go. Still, Kentucky was not dead.
Through a dizzying combination of UNC mistakes and three Fox/Monk 3-pointers, the game was tied again with 7.2 seconds left. Monk, who’d been awful all night, buried the off-balance equalizer with two towering defenders swiping at him.
Now comes the part where Calipari gets to spend an entire offseason (at least) regretting that he didn’t spend his final timeout — and where the Wildcats spend a lifetime, perhaps, wishing they hadn’t lost track of Maye on the left wing.
“They’ve got to self-reflect, because we made some plays, some individual plays down the stretch, like, ‘What were you thinking?’ But young kids,” Calipari said. “And the second thing is I’ve got to look at myself.”
The Tar Heels inbounded quickly and Theo Pinson, who sat out UK’s 103-100 win over UNC in December, zoomed the length of the court in time to find Maye for the game-winner.
“What happened?” Calipari said. “I probably will never know, because I won’t watch this tape. (But) amazing that we had a chance. So proud of how these guys fought.”
NEVER CHANGE, MARCH. pic.twitter.com/1H4aiOLXYG
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 26, 2017
There will be time to dissect whether Kentucky’s coach underachieved with yet another preseason top-five team that was loaded with future pros. (Conducting a quick search of college basketball coaches with more Elite Eight and Final Four appearances in the last decade should provide a quick answer.)
There will be time, likely not long from now, for Monk, Fox, Adebayo and others to announce their draft decisions. (Those three are almost certainly gone.) But Sunday night, in the aftermath of a season-ending heart break for a Kentucky team that won 32 games and lost six, it was time to see how much this meant to the Wildcats.
“All these guys are like my brothers. I love them to death, especially Fox,” Adebayo said. “He’s been my roommate since this thing started, so that’s like blood to me.”
As the 6-foot-10, 260-pound power forward finished that thought, a large teardrop rolled down his cheek.