Looking to avenge a Jan. 14 overtime loss to the University of Arkansas, the Wildcats fell to the Razorbacks again in overtime on Thursday night in Lexington.
The victory for Arkansas (19-9, 8-7 Southeastern Conference) was its first in Rupp Arena since 1994 and will help bolster its résumé for a NCAA Tournament bid.
The home loss for the Wildcats (21-7, 11-4 SEC) was unanticipated for a variety of reasons. UK was certainly favored in this matchup, having lost to the Razorbacks in heart-breaking, last-second fashion five weeks ago.
The Wildcats were riding the momentum of a dramatic victory over LSU that ended in a Julius Randle put-back shot in the final seconds on Feb. 22.
Kentucky was also hosting the game, which has historically proven to be advantageous for head coach John Calipari. The home loss was Calipari’s fourth in five seasons at Kentucky.
From a UK fan’s perspective, the foam finger could be pointed directly at the Wildcats’ lack of experience for this surprising loss. At the start of the game, ten players gathered around midcourt for tip-off. There were two seniors, one junior, one sophomore and six freshmen. Only one freshman played for the visiting team.
The apparent lack of experience certainly correlates with the statistics of the starting five for the Wildcats. The all-freshmen starting lineup combined for 15 of the 18 turnovers for the Wildcats. As a team, Kentucky shot 12-22 from the free-throw line.
“We missed all the free throws that mattered,” Calipari said.
It turned out that every free throw mattered. The Razorbacks were a perfect 16-16 from the charity stripe. In its seven losses this season, UK shot just 59.5 percent (122/205) from the free-throw line.
The loss spoiled a strong game from embattled UK sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein both statistically (16 points, 13 rebounds, including nine offensive) and effort-wise.
Other factors that led to Kentucky’s demise against the Razorbacks were incalculable.
Cauley-Stein led the Wildcats back from a double-digit deficit to take a five-point lead with less than three minutes remaining in regulation. This is when the “lack of experience bomb” detonated.
The Wildcats led by three points around the 1:25 mark in the second half. Cauley-Stein had just seized another offensive board and kicked it out to freshman guard Aaron Harrison. Aaron Harrison decided to drive the ball down the middle of the lane and draw a foul.
Rather than milk the shot clock longer, Aaron Harrison chose to take a contested shot and was fouled. He made the second free throw after missing the first, resulting in a four point game.
Arkansas scored after the change of possession, cutting the lead to two points. Aaron Harrison’s twin brother, freshman guard Andrew Harrison, burned time off the clock this time but then inexplicably attempted an alley-oop that was easily stolen by Arkansas.
Andrew Harrison immediately compounded the mistake by fouling. Arkansas tied the game on the ensuing free throws and sent the game to overtime.
The late game sequence epitomized the young Wildcats’ struggles this season. The highly-touted freshman class came to Kentucky with college-level talent, not college-level experience.
That is the positive takeaway from this disappointing loss. The young Wildcats gained valuable experience and can watch the film of this game and study the daunting statistics. The team can hopefully concur that a 54 percent free throw percentage and seven total team assists in an overtime game against a team that had already upset them previously this season is clearly obstructive to the goal of winning.
Cauley-Stein believes his team will move beyond this loss, but will not forget it.
“Just remember the feeling. It’s getting too close to crunch time. You can’t dwell on it and then do the same thing the next game because you’re thinking about the last one,” Cauley-Stein said.
The 2010-2011 Kentucky Wildcats entered the SEC Tournament with eight regular season losses. That team tapped and maximized its potential en route to the Final Four.
This young 2013-2014 Kentucky basketball team may have needed a swift punch rather than a tap to maximize its potential. It may have just gotten that after last night’s loss.